"This is part of a period that I think is unusual for the Koch brothers in that they've always been behind-the-scenes players in conservative Republican circles for years," Haider-Markel said. "They've sort of operated without much attention whatsoever."
Cato has been aggressive in its defense and appears to be winning in the court of public opinion, though that obviously carries no weight in an actual courtroom.
Since the Koch brothers filed their suit, Cato has pressed its case repeatedly in the press and published a webpage on its site called Save Cato. It includes links to Cato's tax forms, the Kochs' court petition, and a dozen clips in the mainstream media about the feud.
Many libertarians view Cato as the definitive hub for spreading their movement's ideas and have jumped to its defense.
"I haven't heard anybody who wasn't on Cato's side on this, because they feel like Cato's just done such a great job," said Sharon Harris, the president of Advocates for Self-Government, a libertarian group in Georgia well known for its 10-point political questionnaire. "I would not want to see anything happen to them that would water down what they're doing."
"How can Charles and David Koch, who are both devoted to classic Lockean conceptions of freedom and property, think they have a moral right to the control of Cato as of 2012?" asked the libertarian author Charles Murray. "I want to ask them, more in bewilderment more than in anger, how they can justify this lawsuit — not legally, but in terms of principles they cherish."
Cato supporters say the worst-case scenario in a Koch takeover would be a reduction in research and proposals focused on civil liberties and foreign policy, areas in which libertarians often differ from mainstream Republicans (like on gay marriage and starting wars).
The Cato fellow predicted that if the Kochs gained control, 20 percent of the senior policy staff would leave in the first month, and more than half would bolt over a couple of years, including Levy, the chairman.
"The policy people, at least folks I've spoken to, including myself, would not stay," the fellow said. "Nobody's got a non-compete clause."