Political scientists have commented on the pluralism of American government—the organization of interest groups for political influence. Trades, professions, industries, and unions are increasingly organized horizontally to represent the profit or narrow stake of their members. Governmental decision making reflects the intensity of this organization through lobbying, campaign contributions, litigation, and information control. The interests of the poor, the very young, and the very old, and the highly diffuse stake of the consumer, the environment, and future generations, are relatively unorganized and unrepresented. The legal system mirrors our political system in its representation of those organized around a profit stake in public policy.
–Robert C. Fellmeth, in his 1979 proposal to create the Center for Public Interest Law
To help remedy the problems set forth above and educate law students about the importance of public interest law, the USD School of Law faculty created the Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL) in the fall of 1980, and appointed Professor Robert C. Fellmeth as its director; Professor Fellmeth has directed the Center ever since. CPIL is an academic center of research, teaching, learning, and advocacy in public interest and administrative law. The Center focuses its efforts on the study of an extremely powerful, yet often overlooked, level of government: state agencies and boards that regulate business, professions, and trades.
CPIL faculty and professional staff teach student interns a variety of courses relating to regulatory, consumer, and public interest law, and supervise them in monitoring administrative agencies, participating in agency proceedings, and writing reports on the activities of their agencies. Through its student interns, CPIL examines and analyzes the activities of thirty state regulatory agencies, and educates the public through its legal journal, the California Regulatory Law Reporter. The only publication of its kind in the nation, the Reporter has become a valuable source of information to legislators, courts, law firms, journalists, public interest organizations, and consumers.
In addition to its research and scholarship, CPIL has an action component. It represents the unorganized and underrepresented in a variety of fora, including the courts, the state legislature, and administrative agencies. Through its professional staff and assisted by student interns, CPIL drafts and sponsors legislation, litigates test cases, initiates agency rulemaking, and engages in public advocacy on issues related to correcting the imbalance of representation before state government entities. CPIL challenges state government to be responsive and accountable to the interests of the general public, rather than the wishes of monied special interests that are well-represented in all types of governmental decision making.
Over the years, CPIL has initiated a number of successful advocacy and education projects that have evolved into separate entities:
- In 1989, the Los Angeles-based Weingart Foundation awarded a $500,000 grant to CPIL to create the Children's Advocacy Institute (CAI). CAI quickly became one of the state's leading child advocacy organizations, representing children in the state legislature, in the courts, before administrative agencies, and through public education programs. CAI's achievements include legislation to overhaul the regulation of child care facilities and to create "Kids' Plates," a personalized vehicle license plates program whose proceeds are earmarked for child care and safety programs; legislation to require children under the age of 18 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle; litigation to compel a state agency to adopt public playground safety regulations to prevent child injury; research and evaluation of a pilot project substituting a single, interdisciplinary interview of a child abuse victim for repeated interrogations by multiple interviewers; creation of the Child Advocacy Clinic, which provides law students with the skills and knowledge necessary to represent the interests of children in all fora; and publication of the California Children's Budget, California Legislative Report Card, and Children's Regulatory Law Reporter.
- With a grant from the Public Utilities Commission's Telecommunications Education Trust, CPIL established the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in July 1992. At the time, the PRC was the first and only consumer education project in the United States to focus solely on personal privacy protection — a cutting-edge legal issue that has since emerged as a national concern. Through a toll-free hotline, its distribution of fact sheets on various informational privacy issues, and an Internet website, the PRC has educated consumers and policymakers throughout the nation on the importance of informational privacy in this era of the "information superhighway." The PRC separated from CPIL in 1996 but continues its important consumer education mission as an independent organization.
- Using cy pres settlement funds from a lawsuit against Duke Energy, the University of San Diego School of Law established the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) as part of CPIL. EPIC is a non-profit academic and research center of the University of San Diego School of Law that studies energy policy issues affecting the San Diego region and California. EPIC integrates research and analysis, law school study, and public education, and serves as a source of legal and policy expertise and information in the development of sustainable solutions that meet our future energy needs.
In 1990, San Diego philanthropists Sol and Helen Price contributed $1.5 million to USD to establish the Price Chair in Public Interest Law, an endowed faculty chair held by CPIL founder Robert C. Fellmeth.