With the passing of Ronald A. Zumbrun, our nation has lost a legal warrior who helped start the conservative legal battle to restore the Constitution and the rule of law.
Zumbrun, a graduate of the University of California’s Boalt Hall School of Law, was a co-founder and the first legal director of the Pacific Legal Foundation, continuing as its president and chief executive officer for 22 years.
As outlined in the book “Bringing Justice to the People: The Story of the Freedom-Based Public Interest Law Movement,” the Pacific Legal Foundation was founded in 1973 in Sacramento, California.
At the time, there were many public interest law firms across the country spending tens of millions of dollars to push the radical agenda of liberal litigators. The Pacific Legal Foundation was, according to the American Bar Association, the first conservative public interest law firm to part company with the liberal philosophy of those organizations.
Members of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s staff helped form the Pacific Legal Foundation to protect individual and property rights and to enforce the principles of limited government through litigation and administrative proceedings.
It was an outgrowth of the very successful welfare reform that Reagan implemented in California, which was met with vigorous opposition and confrontation by welfare rights organizations, unions, legal aid societies, and liberal public interest law firms.
One of the authors (Ed Meese, who at that time was Reagan’s executive secretary), in conjunction with other conservative lawyers and government officials, generated support for an organization that would oppose judicial activism and act as a counter to the many liberal organizations who were constantly working to destroy constitutional protections and expand the power of government.
Reagan had complained to his aides that there were no comparable groups to fight for free markets and limited government.
One of those aides, Zumbrun, was “requested to develop a formal policy concept” for the objectives of this new organization, as well as how it would be organized and operate, and what areas it would cover.
Zumbrun started with a budget of just $117,000 in the first 10 months of operation of the Pacific Legal Foundation. By 2018, its net assets had grown to almost $60 million.
Under Zumbrun’s leadership, the foundation began working tirelessly to protect individuals and small businesses from overreaching government.
It has won numerous victories in the courts, including the Supreme Court. That includes the 1987 decision in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, which as the foundation’s website says, is “taught today as a landmark case in the property-law classes of every American law school.”
In Nollan, the Supreme Court held that the California Coastal Commission’s requirement that a family grant a public easement along its beachfront property as a condition of demolishing an existing building violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Just last year, the foundation won its 11th victory at the Supreme Court in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, litigating to protect landowners from grossly unfair and inappropriate takings of their property by the federal government.
The practice of freedom-based public interest law is, as Zumbrun said, “one of the most challenging types of litigation for an attorney.”
According to Zumbrun:
It involves issues that are on the cutting edge of the law, destined to go to the highest levels of the court system. At the same time, it usually involves litigation against heavily staffed and funded governmental agencies and, often, heavily staffed and aggressive radical legal organizations.
One’s credibility is constantly being challenged, and liberal groups go to great lengths to try to destroy the efforts of those who supports our basic system of government and believe in free enterprise, limited government, and private-property rights.
Zumbrun more than met those challenges in helping to build a legal movement that has become a significant force in restoring the eroded principles of constitutional government, protecting individual rights, and reining in the dangerous expansion of governmental power.
His work was vital in restoring the liberty and freedom that has made this country a great nation.
Ronald Zumbrun will be sorely missed by all who knew him, and by those who benefited from his work.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal