The Merry Revolutionary

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

Clint Bolick was born and raised in New Jersey; Dad was a welder, Mom a secretary.

There was no talk of politics in the Bolick household when he was growing up, so Clint's not sure why he was always fascinated by the subject. His earliest political memory is a keen admiration for Richard Nixon, he admits, embarrassed.

IJ attorney Tim Keller worked hard to find the firm's signature client, Randy Bailey.
Vivian Spiegelman
IJ attorney Tim Keller worked hard to find the firm's signature client, Randy Bailey.

When he was 11, Bolick's father died, and the family moved to California. He volunteered on then-governor Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign to get extra credit in social studies and on Reagan's opponent's campaign -- to get even more extra credit.

"But even then my heart was with Reagan," Bolick says.

He returned quickly to New Jersey, eventually graduating from Drew University. Bolick put himself through school working at a grocery store and was actually a member of a union -- forced to sign on.

Bolick hoped the union would strike, only so he could cross the picket line.

From early on (age 4, he insists) Bolick planned to teach school and go into politics. But he was disillusioned after an internship on Capitol Hill and time spent observing public schools. He didn't like the way the political game was played, and he was even less impressed by the quality of inner-city education. He didn't have an alternative plan, until he took a course in constitutional law. Suddenly, the law -- which had always sounded boring and mercenary -- was fascinating. He read Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to school desegregation, and immediately decided Thurgood Marshall was his role model. (To the horror, he admits, of his opponents on the left.)

Today, Marshall remains Bolick's ideal when it comes to strategy, if not philosophy.

"He understood the strategic approach to law, the one-case-at-a-time, baby-step approach to changing the world through legal precedent. He also understood the importance of choosing the right case and arguing cases in the court of public opinion. He understood how valuable a teaching tool the law can be. And conversely, how law can be impacted through public opinion and through seizing the moral high ground. And he was an impassioned and principled advocate."

And so Clint Bolick moved across the country again, this time to attend the University of California's law school in Davis -- which at the time, the late '70s, was a hotbed of liberal activism, particularly with regard to racial preference issues.

Bolick was an instant pariah. By now he understood he was a libertarian, not a conservative, he says, sounding a lot like a young man at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University just discovering his homosexuality.

Looking for an outlet, Bolick found his own personal bath house. He ran for the California Legislature on the Libertarian Party ticket. He got 7.1 percent of the vote -- not bad at all -- and was intoxicated by the experience.

So perhaps he is here in Arizona to run for office.

Absolutely not, he counters quickly, the biography briefly interrupted. Over the years, Bolick says, he's learned that he's "not dispositionally suited to compromise."

But he was well-suited to the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, a conservative public interest law firm founded by controversial Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt and funded by the Coors family in reaction to groups like the Sierra Club.

In Denver, Bolick focused on racial preference and school choice cases. His work drew the attention of the Reagan Administration, and he accepted a job at the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, where he met Clarence Thomas, then the head of the EEOC. (Thomas did not respond to an interview request.)

From there Bolick moved to the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where one of his duties was supervising summer law clerks, which is how he came to meet John F. Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy called it his "conservative summer," recalls Bolick, who found JFK Jr. charming and later provided story ideas for his George magazine.

Over the years, Bolick continued to hammer on his favorite issues -- vouchers, affirmative action, entrepreneurial freedom. He wrote the first of five books based on his philosophy and started talking with Chip Mellor, who had hired him at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, about creating their own public interest law firm. They found seed money from Koch Industries, a family business based in Wichita, Kansas. (David Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice president in 1980. The Koches have funded other libertarian causes over the years, and early efforts in several states to impose term limits.)

Since its creation, IJ has fought against bureaucracy large and small, arguing that retail vintners should be allowed to sell their wine by mail and that high school students should not be forced to perform community service as a requirement for graduation. It convinced a court that Donald Trump should not be allowed to have an old woman's home condemned to make way for a parking lot in New Jersey. It lost its first hair-braiding case in the courtroom, but created such a storm of negative sentiment that the District of Columbia eased the restrictions the IJ had been fighting in the first place.

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