Originally created 05/08/00

Foundation's watchdog reputation increases



ATLANTA -- Bill Clinton probably wishes he'd never heard of a small, special-interest law firm from Atlanta that is nipping at his heels like a Chihuahua.

First, the Southeastern Legal Foundation took his administration to the Supreme Court over its plan to use statistical sampling to estimate the census rather than actually tallying individuals. The high court ruled against the Clinton plan, throwing sand in the gears of a Democratic strategy to overcome major population shifts favoring Republicans.

Now the foundation is trying to get the Committee on Professional Conduct of the Arkansas Supreme Court to disbar Mr. Clinton. On Friday, the final briefs were filed by Mr. Clinton's lawyers and the foundation, setting up a vote on whether the committee will sue the president in Arkansas circuit court to strip him of his license to practice law in his home state.

The foundation also represented former FBI Agent Gary Aldridge after the agency stopped publication of his tell-all book on his years in the White House, Unlimited Access. The foundation won that battle, too, and soon the public could read tales of Mr. Clinton's life behind closed doors even before Monica Lewinsky's shocking testimony.

"I view these organizations mostly as irritants," said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice in Washington. "They have resources; they usually have prominent businesspeople on their boards, and they can tie up cases, usually for years. They are troublemakers in that they impede affirmative action goals, environmental controls, consumer regulations."

For resources, the Southeastern Legal Foundation claims 118,000 contributors, only 17,000 of them from Georgia. Its visibility has soared in recent years, resulting in regular appearances by its president, Matt Glavin, on shows ranging from Today to Hardball.

"We go in when rights are being violated. If you think of the Constitution as a box, the government goes outside the box all the time," Mr. Glavin said. "We're simply there to push government back in the box."

Mounting cases that can cost $1 million and generate more than 100,000 pages of documents, the foundation has to be picky about what it pursues, but Mr. Glavin says that selectivity explains part of the success. Being right is the other reason, he said.

But critics disagree.

"They are attempting to exploit the mood of the federal judiciary," said the Rev. Fred Douglass Taylor, coordinator of direct action for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Rev. Taylor said that mood is tilted toward the right because former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush appointed so many conservatives to the federal bench -- and because Republicans in Congress have prevented Mr. Clinton from naming many liberals as judges.

Most of the foundation's cases have been fought in federal courts, but the Clinton administration hasn't been the only target. From affirmative action cases in Jacksonville and Atlanta to a beach-property case brewing in Destin, Fla., the foundation has pursued a range of conservative issues.

Some of its victories have come simply from the public threat of litigation, such as when former Gov. Zell Miller did an about-face 24 hours after the foundation announced it would block his plan to tax homeowners who rent their residences to visitors during the 1996 Olympics.

"There are two sides to every issue," said the foundation's chairman, former U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, R-Ga. "Like the man says, there has never been a pancake so thin that it didn't have two sides."

Mr. Mattingly says the foundation takes the conservative side. He describes its mission as "the opposite of the ACLU. Ours is from a strict constitutional standpoint, whereas the ACLU is the liberal: good vs. evil."

Members of the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union chuckle at Mr. Mattingly's characterization. In fact, the two organizations occasionally have been on the same side of some issues, according to ACLU Executive Director Debbie Seagraves.

"We are the conservative ACLU. There is no more conservative position than strict interpretation of the Constitution that preserves personal liberties."

Ms. Seagraves and representatives of special-purpose law firms on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Southeastern Legal Foundation say they don't give much thought to their Georgia-based opponents. But Mr. Glavin says his organization's following is growing with each new visible case. For example, he said, more than 100,000 people have added their names to an online petition for Mr. Clinton's disbarment, found on the foundation's Web site, www.southeasternlegal.org, and contributions are growing steadily.

"We have not been a southeastern foundation for several years. We're national now."

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.