The Merry Revolutionary

Clint Bolick is trying to change the world, one lawsuit at at time.

Clint Bolick is cheerful.

Not cheerful in the toys-all-over-your-desk, high-five-your-co-workers-at-the-copy-machine way. He's truly happy.

Bolick attributes his permanent good mood to a great home life, but those who know him best -- friends, colleagues and even his wife -- say it's job satisfaction that really makes him smile.

A decade ago, Bolick studied the success of the left's civil rights movement, gave it a libertarian twist and co-founded the Institute for Justice, a conservative public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C. Today, it's a humming operation with a $5 million annual budget.

"I sue bureaucrats for a living," he's fond of saying. And that is exactly what he does.

IJ'ers call themselves progressive libertarians -- they focus on issues involving economic liberty and tend to avoid social issues. The organization represents parents fighting for school vouchers and entrepreneurs fighting against government regulation.

Bolick is anti-affirmative action, pro-private property rights and downright religious when it comes to school choice. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in one of his cases, a school voucher lawsuit out of Cleveland, Ohio, that could lead to a landmark decision on the issue of the separation of church and state.

Bolick and his IJ cohorts are accomplished litigators, but they truly shine in the court of public opinion. Bolick is perhaps best known for an op-ed piece he penned for the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s, in which he attacked a law professor named Lani Guinier, the Clinton administration's choice for assistant attorney general for civil rights. Bolick dubbed Guinier a "quota queen." The label stuck and Clinton dumped Guinier -- earning his own label as a wimp.

Given that, it's probably not surprising that Bolick and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are close; Thomas is godfather to Bolick's younger son. But Bolick was also friendly with the late John F. Kennedy Jr.

His client list includes African-American hair braiders who don't like the white-dictated rules of the cosmetology industry; in some states they are required to take expensive, time-consuming courses in the use of hair dye and straighteners they don't use. Bolick, who is in his mid-40s, white and balding, gets a big kick out of representing black "corn rowers."

Even Nina Totenberg -- the legal correspondent for National Public Radio, a news organization not generally considered to have a cozy relationship with the right -- calls Bolick a "professional friend."

Totenberg and many others call Bolick a Happy Warrior, a reference to a nickname given to Hubert Humphrey, a politician who advanced the agenda of the left as President Lyndon Johnson's vice president.

That drives Bolick's detractors nuts.

"C'mon," says Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the National Education Association, IJ's biggest opponent in the school choice battle. "He looks like one of the Seven Dwarfs, for God's sake. Who is it? Happy? Dopey?"

Pons concedes he's never met Bolick, only seen him on TV. But those who've watched Bolick work say having him represent you is like having Wayne Gretzky coach your hockey team. His good friend Lisa Graham Keegan -- former Arizona schools chief, now a professional school choice advocate -- calls him the legal Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Love him or hate him, it's time for Arizona to meet Clint Bolick.

A few months ago, Bolick packed his D.C. bags, hired an assistant and another attorney, and the Institute for Justice quietly opened its first state chapter, right here in Phoenix. A third attorney -- Tom Liddy, son of G. Gordon, Bolick calls him "a Liddy with a heart" -- joined IJ earlier this year. Bolick already knew Keegan, and he'd done a fellowship at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank here. He and his IJ colleagues figured Arizona was a good place for progressive libertarians. The creation of state chapters is another concept stolen from left-leaning groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Bolick's opponents in the lawsuits he's already filed in Arizona don't know much about him. They snipe that he's carpetbagging, here to start a political career and run for office. Bolick denies that emphatically, insisting he can accomplish far more as a lawyer. And he may be correct.

Just consider a proven model: attorney Tim Hogan and his Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. For years, Hogan -- as liberal as Bolick is libertarian -- has had the courts to himself. He's had almost no serious opposition.

In Arizona, conservatives have tended to control the governor's office, the Legislature and the congressional delegation. They have the Goldwater Institute, and a colorful cast of outspoken characters.

But conservatives have ceded the judiciary -- often the last stop for public policymaking -- to Tim Hogan. Hogan has wrangled significant changes in areas like education and the environment.

IJ has come in with a bang. In the firm's signature Arizona case, IJ is representing brake shop owner Randy Bailey against the city of Mesa, which is trying to condemn his property so a hardware store can be built on it. The case could go to trial next week. Bolick is involved in ongoing litigation regarding school tax credits (IJ supports them) and a lawsuit challenging the state's Clean Elections law. He's toe-to-toe with Hogan in the latter, which is now before the Arizona Supreme Court.

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