by Jennifer Tiedemann
March 12, 2019
How many people can say they’ve had a passion for the Constitution since they were a kid? Timothy Sandefur can.
“I think I’ve been interested in law since I was a child, but I became interested in constitutional law about the age of 10, actually,” explains Sandefur, the Goldwater Institute’s Vice President for Litigation. “I was about 10 years old when the bicentennial of the Constitution was celebrated, and I got interested in that and American history and the Founding Fathers and so forth.”
And Sandefur can put his finger on one moment that cemented his future career path in constitutional law: when he came across a particular Supreme Court case. “I was in ninth grade when I first learned of the case of Tinker v. Des Moines School District, which is a 1968 case in the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court upheld the right of high school students to wear black armbands to their school to protest the Vietnam War. They had been punished by their schools for doing this, and the Supreme Court said that they had a First Amendment right to do that.” When Sandefur read the case, he says, that’s when he realized the power the Constitution had to protect the rights of people like him. “It really, really hit me that here was the Constitution of the United States reaching out to protect me—a student in a school, in a public school who had rights that the school couldn’t take away from me. That really meant a lot to me, and I remember I made my parents take me down to a law library so I could photocopy a copy of that case and keep it with me.”
This realization led Sandefur to his career using the law and the Constitution to expand individual freedom. He came to the Goldwater Institute after 15 years as a litigator for the Pacific Legal Foundation, but even before his arrival, the Institute was in the family. “I was very fortunate to have a connection to the Goldwater Institute before I started because my wife [Goldwater Institute Executive Vice President Christina Sandefur] was already employed at the Institute.” Sandefur says. It was really no question that he too would join the Institute once the opportunity came around: “When the opportunity arose to work alongside her and to work for an organization that had proven itself to be such an effective and valuable voice for freedom, not just in Arizona but worldwide, I mean, I couldn’t have asked for more.”
In his role as the Institute’s Vice President for Litigation, Sandefur heads Goldwater’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, which is one of the country’s leading litigation centers housed in a public policy organization. Founded by now-Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick in 2007, the Scharf-Norton Center is unique is its focus on how state constitutions provide protections for individual liberty—in many cases, stronger protections that the U.S. Constitution offers. “A lot of the time, lawyers will focus on the federal Constitution and disregard the state constitutional protections,” Sandefur explains. “[Bolick] really wanted to change that attitude in the law. So I was very fortunate to succeed him at the Institute to pursue that mission and our other projects here in defense…not just defense, in promoting individual liberty and making for a society where people can live freer and happier lives.”
Sandefur himself litigates a wide variety of cases, dealing with questions surrounding property rights, free speech, and taxpayer rights. But the legal work he’s most proud of is the Institute’s efforts to put an end to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). “[ICWA] is a 1978 federal law that creates a separate and less productive set of rules to govern child welfare cases involving children who are biologically eligible for membership in an Indian tribe.” The law applies not just to kids who are tribal members, but also to kids could become tribal members, and, Sandefur says, “it prevents state child protection officers from protecting children against abuse and neglect and makes it incredibly difficult to find these children safe, loving, and permanent adoptive homes when necessary.”
Native American children are among the country’s most at-risk populations, and so Sandefur is particularly proud of Goldwater’s efforts “to protect them against an unconstitutional, racially segregated system that deprives them of the protections that they’re entitled to under federal and state law.” You can read more about the Institute’s ICWA work here.
Jennifer Tiedemann is Deputy Communications Director at the Goldwater Institute.