by Jennifer Tiedemann
What makes the law so special? According to Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick—formerly of the Goldwater Institute—working in the law gives you “the capacity to fight bullies.”
In a recent talk at Drew University, the small New Jersey liberal arts college where he earned his undergraduate degree, Bolick shared some insight into how the law can be used to expand freedom in the face of oppressive government action. Early in his career, he represented Ego Brown, who ran his own shoeshine business in Washington, D.C. But a longstanding city regulation against shoeshine stands on public streets threatened to put an end to his livelihood. Bolick, who had been looking to take on an economic liberty case, read about Brown’s plight in the pages of the Washington Post—and soon after, he went to meet the entrepreneur in person and what the city was doing to shut him down.
Before long, Bolick said, “we commenced sweet litigation together”—they sued the District of Columbia, on the grounds that the regulation was keeping Brown from earning a living. On the first day of spring in 1989, the law was struck down in Federal District Court. Shortly after the decision, ABC’s World News Tonight chose Brown as its Person of the Week—and host Peter Jennings said of Brown: “He’s made us all a little bit freer.”
“Making people a little bit freer” has been a pursuit of Bolick’s for decades. He’s had a long and distinguished career in public policy and public service: He co-founded the Institute for Justice, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, headed up the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, and now serves as an associate justice on the Arizona Supreme Court, a position he was appointed to in 2016 by Governor Doug Ducey.
While he’d planned to pursue a career in teaching and politics, a Capitol Hill internship in college made him realize that the partisan rancor that imbues politics wasn’t for him. Bolick said he had never really considered law because he thought it was boring, but he came to realize that law “is how you bring about fundamental change in America.” He decided he wanted to be a constitutional lawyer, and he never looked back.
As someone who has made a career of defending constitutional principles, Bolick explained that the law ought to be used to advance freedom, so that people have more of an ability to control their own destinies. And while the law can be used to make radical change, it brings about that change through the protection of established principles—those laid out by founding documents like the U.S. Constitution. The protection of those principles, he said, is a truly conservative action.
Bolick worked on many cases as a Goldwater litigator to preserve those principles, but he says that his favorite was one of the smallest. Four women who had been parents of students in the Congress Elementary School District in central Arizona had made several public records requests asking for school board meeting agendas and minutes—but instead of complying with the requests, the district instead sued the women, asking to prevent the women from filing any further requests without permission from a judge. After a trial court sided with the women, the district appealed the decision—with taxpayer money. The lower court decision was affirmed, and the women’s right to make public records requests was protected. It was a small case, Bolick says, but it’s the one that makes him the happiest and the proudest, because it showed how the law can overcome a behemoth entity bullying average citizens.
But while the American system gets us closer to justice for all than any other system, it frequently devolves into nastiness and mudslinging—a concern that seems to grow by the day. Bolick said that three things are needed to push back against this trend: engaging calm, rational, and civil discourse; presuming goodwill on the part of others, and having nontraditional allies with whom you can seek common cause. They’re all in short supply these days, but nevertheless, they’re all crucial to a functioning political system and worth fighting for.
Despite the current challenges and hurdles in our system, the victories for freedom Bolick discussed—wins for the little guy, for the entrepreneur, for the average citizen—could only happen in America. And that, he said, is something we should appreciate and cherish.
Jennifer Tiedemann is the deputy director of communications at the Goldwater Institute and—like Justice Bolick—a graduate of Drew University.