Jim Dey: Lawyer is a slugger in war on bad rules

Jim Dey: Lawyer is a slugger in war on bad rules

Wearing glasses, a suit and scholarly demeanor, Jacob Huebert comes across as an unlikely warrior in the fight for freedom.

Indeed, he looks more like a law professor — which he once was — than a guy looking for trouble.

But show him some people being pushed around by government bureaucrats enforcing pointless rules, and he's ready for battle.

They include people like Julie Crowe of Bloomington, who was barred from starting a passenger-van service aimed at female students attending Illinois State University. Or James Nuccio and Gabriel Wiesen, who wanted to launch a food-truck business called Beavers Donuts in Evanston. They were prohibited from doing so because a local ordinance said only existing brick-and-mortar restaurants could operate food trucks.

Huebert, a 37-year-old lawyer representing the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, filed lawsuits challenging the exclusionary rules in both Bloomington and Evanston. A McLean County judge ruled in Crowe's favor in the van case while Evanston city fathers, after a four-year fight, agreed to repeal the law barring Beavers Donuts from operation.

"The consistent theme to all of these cases is that no one should have any special government-granted advantage in the marketplace or in the political arena," said Huebert, a graduate of the University of Chicago law school.

It's because of that philosophy — a don't-tread-on-me approach toward political and economic freedom — that Huebert and the Liberty Justice Center are starting to make a mark on Illinois politics and law.

If all goes according to plan — that's a big if — the organization will make a national splash in the next year when it hopes to take a legal dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court, over forced public employee union dues payments by non-union members.

An Illinois-based lawsuit against a state employees union — AFSCME — challenges the union's legal authority to require non-members to pay sop-called "fair share" dues. The last time the court heard a similar case, March 2016, it was split down the middle — 4-4 — because of the vacancy on the nine-member court caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Now that the court has a ninth member — Justice Neil Gorsuch — there's no reason the court can't decide the issue. Public employees fear an adverse ruling because it would apply to all 50 states and mean that public employee unions could no longer force non-members to support the union with their money.

The Liberty Justice Center is affiliated with Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank that maintains offices in both Chicago and Springfield. The two organizations share ideas and resources, and there's some cross-pollination in management.

John Tillman, head of the IPI, sits on the Liberty Justice Center's board of directors.

The IPI, a font of ideas, currently is pushing what it calls "an Illinois Constitution for the 21st century" that emphasizes "reviving constitutional protection for economic liberty" in this state.

As part of that effort, Huebert stopped at The News-Gazette on Wednesday to discuss the questions that animate the issue of economic liberty.

He's specifically concerned about rolling back the relentless efforts by interest groups to lobby governmental entities to pass laws that protect their private economic interests.

In the Bloomington case, Crowe was forced to attend a public hearing where her would-be competitors, acting under the authority of a city ordinance, argued that the additional competition she represented served no public interest. After the city ruled in 2011 against her, Crowe, represented by Huebert, challenged the vague law the city cited as justification for prohibiting her from going into business.

Two years later, Circuit Judge Rebecca Foley struck down the city ordinance as illegal because the city has no authority to arbitrarily deny licenses to those who wish to start a business.

Huebert said there are hundreds of laws like that on the books across the country. He attributed the problem to the lobbying for favors done by interest groups who wish to restrict competition.

"People have been doing this sort of thing for a long time," he said.

That problem is compounded by pliable state and local authorities who perceive their regulatory power as unlimited.

Huebert said municipal governments in Illinois, especially those with home rule authority, "tend to think they can do whatever they want."

"Nobody has called them on this stuff until now," he said.

Despite its successes, the Liberty Justice Center is swimming against the legal tide. Indeed, it's trying to create its own legal tide, but economic freedom has long taken a back seat in terms of constitutional jurisprudence.

It's the same thing in the political arena in Illinois.

Liberty lawyers recently volunteered to represent a Streator man who filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections about the questionable campaign spending of former state representative and current Auditor General Frank Mautino.

That case proved to be an exercise in frustration as the elections board essentially ignored the complaint filed by Streator's David Cooke and issued a non-fine fine of $5,000 against Mautino for his willful refusal to turn over campaign records. The fine is illusory is because it was levied against Mautino's now-dissolved campaign committee.

Despite the occasional setbacks, Huebert said he remains keenly interested in the legal challenges and devoted to the work.

"I can't think of anything I'd rather do," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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