Will Ford Foundation Rekindle Its Affair with Public Interest Law?

Walter Olson wrote an excellent analysis of how the Ford Foundation has used law schools to advance leftist politics over the past century — a practice he acridly refers to as "public interest law." (See Ford Foundation: Grants for Higher Education.) Needless to say, the Cato Institute Senior Fellow finds it detestable; I personally can't think of a better use for foundation money. Regrettably, Olsen's piece doesn't get into the specifics regarding what Ford has done in this area most recently. Allow me.

The foundation supports public interest law in three principle ways: grants to law schools that teach students how to do it; fellowships for students who want to do it; and support for attorneys and other legal professionals who do it presently. Find recent examples of each in order below:

  • In 2011, the foundation gave $500,000 to the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard. The institute is named for a public interest litigator whose efforts precipitated Brown V. Board of Education, the decision that effectively ended school segregation. This is one of U.S. history's largest testaments to what public interest law can accomplish.
  • Again, beyond supporting law schools themselves, the foundation also pays for activistism-inclined students to attend school. In 2013, the inaugural year of the Ford Foundation Law School Public Interest Fellowship Program, 100 law students received a total of 1.7 million Ford bucks to attend Harvard, Stanford, NYU, and Yale.
  • But the support doesn't stop at the bar. The foundation also gave $500,000 to the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. The money supports three programs that watchdog racist law enforcement practices in that state. The programs are the Race and Justice Project, Second Change Program, and Indigent Defense Clinic. This grant to the Ohio organization is just one example of such programs that Ford supports; it's got money in similar efforts centered around virtually any social justice issue you can imagine.

Public opinion for public interest law ironically waned somewhat during the '80s and '90s, according to Olson. But Ford may soon ramp up its public interest law campaign once again. This year, two major changes in Ford's administrative hierarchy put people with legal backgrounds in powerful positions. Former law scholar Darren Walker will take over as Ford's president this month, and in February the foundation also brought in Ricardo Castro as VP and general legal counsel. Castro has in the past litigated on behalf of the HIV and AIDS community.