Interest Groups

Interest Groups in the United States

Interest Groups in Court

Interest groups often involve themselves in litigation. An interest group becomes involved with courts because certain cases contain policy issues about which the groups have strong views. There are several ways interest groups attempt to influence judicial decision making. One avenue exists outside the form of the case when groups represent their interests in the judicial selection process. This is especially true with the selection of appellate judges. Participation also takes place in the actual litigation process. An effective way of advancing group interests may be to challenge a particular public policy. A favorable ruling may be obtained if the group can get the proper case to the courts. Indeed, groups often initiate (or have initiated) “test cases.”

The test case usually contains group members as named parties. A group may also facilitate the filing of class actions, a single lawsuit raising claims for a group of similarly injured persons. If a case has already been commenced, groups may assume sponsorship of the action by underwriting some or all of the costs. Groups may also supply legal counsel. Finally, groups frequently submit arguments on pending cases through the device of amicus curiae or “friend of the court” briefs. Interest group use of litigation has increased substantially since World War II. The Supreme Court’s decision in NAACP v. Alabama (375 U.S. 449: 1958) was a particularly important factor. The Court’s ruling in this case was based on the associational rights that derive from the First Amendment. The Court acknowledged that “effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group as-sociation.” Further, the Court suggested that association for litigation may be the “most effective form” of political association. (1)

Analysis and Relevance

Interest groups find that litigation provides an effective avenue for participating in the public policy making process. This is especially true for organizations unable to participate effectively before other branches or agencies of government. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, have historically been unsuccessful in preventing the adoption of legislative and administrative policies that impinge on their religious practices, especially proselytizing. Court challenges to some of these regulations, however, have produced favorable outcomes for the Witnesses. The influence of interest groups is largely exerted in two ways. First, groups generate cases. In particular situations, groups perceive the opportunities to legally challenge certain policies. Groups often offer to sponsor cases under these circumstances. Some of this litigation would not occur otherwise. Second, after the cases are in the courts, groups are able to affect decisions through the presentation of arguments, especially at the appellate level. Indeed, group involvement with a case frequently enhances the prospect of it being reviewed by those appellate courts having discretionary jurisdiction. Groups that appear in the process on a regular basis, such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the NAACP (through their Legal Defense Fund), have been particularly effective at protecting or advancing the interests of their memberships. (2)

Interest Groups: Political Influence

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, interest groups are “groups of people who try to use the power of government to advance their own interests, have played an important part in the development of both constitutional law and constitutional theory.”

Citizens’ Groups and Lobbies

The First Amendment to the Constitution, by asserting the rights of free speech, free assembly and peaceful petition for the redress of grievances, provides the legal basis for so-called “special interests” or “lobbies.” Any group has the right to demand that its views be heard — by the public, by the legislature, by the executive branch and (through selective lawsuits) by the courts. Most attention in recent years has been focused on efforts by a proliferating number of public and private interest groups to influence the course of legislation.

One type of interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee, or PAC. Political action committees are private, independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, that contribute money to political campaigns for Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. PACs today number in the thousands.

Private interest groups usually have an economic stake in the policies they advocate. Business organizations will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions of the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups — such as churches and ethnic groups — are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.

Public interest groups, in contrast, seek a collective good, the achievement of which will not selectively and materially benefit their own membership. This does not mean that such groups are necessarily correct in the positions they take, only that the element of profitable or selective self-interest is absent. Among the most prominent public interest (often called “citizens”) groups to have emerged in the past two decades are those organized by Ralph Nader to protect the consumer.

Perhaps the largest public interest group is Common Cause, with more than 200,000 dues-paying members. Its main purpose is to reform governmental structures to make them more accountable to the public. A great variety of citizens’ organizations are dedicated to protecting the natural environment and wildlife against such dangers as pesticides and excessive commercial development, and combatting air and water pollution. (3)

Interest Groups in the International Business Landscape

Definition of Interest Groups in the context of U.S. international business and public trade policy: Private organizations, united by common goals, that organize to lobby and influence public policy.


Notes and References

  1. Definition of Interest Groups from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
  2. Id.
  3. “An outline of American government” (1980), by Richard C. Schroeder

See Also

Amicus Curiae (Apellate Judicial Process) Class Action (Apellate Judicial Process) Test Case (Apellate Judicial Process).