CIR's primary focus for most of its existence has been challenges to what it regards as unconstitutional or unlawful preference based on race, sex, or another protected status. It has represented members of many races but receives most of its notoriety in challenging programs favoring minorities over non-minorities, often called "affirmative action." Another major focus for CIR is free speech. It has represented individuals and groups, often in university environments, challenging attempts to interfere with speech deemed "politically incorrect." A third focus has been federalism, the attempt to prevent Congress from legislating beyond the powers provided to it in the Constitution.
CIR was incorporated in November 1988 and began operations in April 1989. Its name was chosen to underscore that its objective would be to defend individual liberties, broadly understood to encompass both civil and economic rights. Its founders, Michael McDonald and Michael Greve had previously worked together at the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. McDonald, an attorney, specialized in First Amendment litigation. Greve wrote on environmental issues and assisted with WLF's fundraising.
CIR followed a legal trend of conservative activists seeking to affect national policy through litigation. This same strategy had been pursued by groups on the left for decades. The NAACP and ACLU are notable examples of this model. Traditionally conservative public interest law movement tended to avoid original litigation.
Unlike many other Washington interest groups, CIR involves itself almost exclusively in litigation. It does not lobby Congress nor involve itself it the regulatory process. It does not have a large membership base to influence legislation or engage in fundraising. It has, however, aligned itself with several referendum movements to end State use of racial preferences.
From the outset, CIR specialized in a small number of areas of litigation: free speech and civil rights being the two most important. Unlike traditional liberal groups, CIR found its niche primarily challenging racial preferences in favor of minorities also called affirmative action, government regulation, unconstitutional state action, and other similar entanglements.
Like its liberal counterparts, CIR provides free legal representation to clients who cannot otherwise afford or obtain legal counsel and whose individual rights are threatened. It is funded primarily from individuals and foundations who favor its goals.
CIR's primary focus has been on Civil Rights cases and First Amendment cases involving Freedom of Religion and Free Speech. It has also been involved in several cases involving federalism. For a relatively small organization in existence for only two decades, it has had quite a number of landmark cases, including a number that have reached the US Supreme Court.
CIR's most famous cases were Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, challenges to the University of Michigan's policies giving preference to minority applicants to its undergraduate college (Gratz) and its law school (Grutter). CIR began litigation in 1997. The final Supreme Court opinions were delivered in 2003. Having failed to get the Court to ban use of race in admissions, CIR provided legal support for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and has brought subsequent challenges to the University's continuing use of racial preferences in admissions.
The two Michigan cases capped a series of cases around the country, challenging discriminator admissions systems at various universities. Two other key cases were Hopwood v. Texas where the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit banned racial preferences at the University of Texas. Another case, Smith v. Univ. of Washington in the 9th Circuit upheld use of racial preferences in admissions.
CIR has also challenged numerous University programs which excluded non-minorities. For example, in Doe v. Department of Health and Human Services CIR ended the practice of excluding all non-minorities summer study program at Texas A&M University, a program funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. Similarly in Smith v. Virginia Commonwealth University CIR represented a high school student banned from attending a summer journalism workshop when it was determined he was white. In Tompkins v. Alabama State University CIR represented a black student challenging an all-white scholarship at a traditionally black university.
In another case that reached the Supreme Court, CIR participated in the voting rights case of Reno v. Bossier Parish in which the Department of Justice refused to provide pre-clearance for a state redistricting plan which expanded minority districts because the DOJ felt even more minority districts could be created. The Court held that DOJ could not deny pre-clearance to redistricting plans that did not show a discriminatory intent and which did not reduce the number of minority districts.
In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, CIR represented a student newspaper denied University funding because of the religious content of the paper. Wide Awake was a student run newspaper with a Christian perspective. Despite University funding for a wide range of student groups, including Jewish and Muslim groups, the University categorically denied funding for Wide Awake, arguing it would violate the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that by funding a wide range of groups, the University could not discriminate by excluding religious organizations from funding eligibility.
Building on Rosenberger CIR brought a second case on behalf of Columbia Union College. The school challenged a Maryland Program which provided private colleges and Universities with funds based on the number of students they taught. Numerous Catholic colleges received funding but CUC (run by Seventh Day Adventists) was deemed "pervasively sectarian" or too religious. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that CUC was entitled to equal access to funding.
CIR has also brought a number of cases in lower courts challenging use of racial or sexual harassment codes to silence University Professors, students, and others who have challenged politically correct ideas or used other language considered controversial. It has brought cases against the University of Oklahoma, the University of New Hampshire, and California Polytechnic State University. Most of these cases are settled quickly in CIR's favor and have not gone to trial.
Another area of focus has been defending citizens protesting various political matters who have been sued by entities arguing that their protests or criticism were civil right violations. For example, in White v. Lee CIR defended a neighborhood group who opposed the conversion of hotel in to a homeless shelter. Their peaceful protests involved leafleting let neighbor know of the plan and speaking out at public meetings. After a complaint was filed by the developer of the project The Department of Housing and Urban Development began an investigation threatening fines of up to $50,000 each for obstructing housing for the disabled (since recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who would live in the shelter were defined as disabled). The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the principle that civil rights laws could not be used to stifle legitimate political debate of these matters. CIR has brought similar cases on behalf of protesters against the City of Fresno, California, and the District of Columbia.
CIR also brought an important federalism case in United States v. Morrison. In that case, a female student at Virginia Tech accused several football players of rape. Although a grand jury found insufficient evidence to prosecute, the student brought a challenge in Federal Court under the newly enacted Violence Against Women Act. This law gave women the right to bring such actions under federal authority to regulate commerce among the States. CIR represented one of the football players arguing that the alleged non-economic activity had little relation to interstate commerce. The Court agreed and found that portion of VAWA to be beyond Congressional authority.
Both of CIR's founders Michael P. McDonald and Michael Greve have moved on to other projects. CIR's current president is Terrence "Terry" Pell. Pell is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. He later served as General Counsel and Chief of Staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He joined CIR in 1997.
CIR's impressive litigation docket is run by Michael Rosman, a graduate of Yale Law School and former attorney with the New York Law firm of Rosenman & Colin. He joined CIR in 1994.
CIR's most famous former staff member is probably author and attorney Ann Coulter who worked there briefly in the 1990's.