While national political campaigns and politicians are regularly featured in the news for their accomplishments on the right, one small state-based think tank is quietly grinding away victory after victory. The Goldwater Institute was already a leading state-based think tank when libertarian lawyer Clint Bolick came on board five years ago to launch a litigation division. Since then, Bolick has greatly expanded the reach of the right-leaning think tank, filing lawsuits against all levels of government to protect taxpayers and businesses from government overreach. Bolick's favorite line, which he says with a grin, is, “I get paid to sue government bureaucrats.”
Bolick's litigation against government dates back to his days at The Institute for Justice, the libertarian public interest litigation firm he co-founded with Chip Mellor in 1991. Between his tenure at the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, Bolick served as President and General Counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, where he became a hero of the school choice movement, aggressively defending tuition voucher programs around the country. Bolick has successfully won landmark precedents defending school choice, freedom of enterprise, private property rights and challenging corporate subsidies and racial classifications.
Phoenix Magazine calls the Goldwater Institute “a ninja-lawyer squad.” Conservative writer George Will wrote in 2010, "Pound for pound, the Goldwater Institute is the best (state-level) think tank in the country.” The Goldwater Institute was launched in 1988, appropriately named after Arizona's famous conservative, the late Barry Goldwater. Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was the Executive Director, and left a few years later to run for Congress. The Institute built up a respected reputation as a public policy think tank, issuing exhaustively researched policy reports about local government. Darcy Olsen, a bright young visionary, became President and CEO in 2001 and wisely expanded the organization by bringing in Bolick to start a litigation center, the first of its kind for a state-based policy group.
One of the Goldwater Institute's first most notable victories was taking down Arizona's publicly-funded political campaign system, Clean Elections. Clean Elections is funded by traffic tickets and taxpayers who choose to contribute $5 on their taxes, which reduces their taxes by $5. Implemented by voters through a ballot initiative in 2000, the agency immediately began aggressively targeting conservative candidates. In 2002, Matt Salmon, the Republican candidate for governor, was harshly penalized by Clean Elections through its “matching funds” provision. Salmon was the only major gubernatorial candidate who declined to run using Clean Elections funding. Anytime he raised private funds, Clean Elections would award a matching amount to his opponents, including Democratic candidate Janet Napolitano.
Even more grossly unfair was that Salmon was essentially penalized by Clean Elections for his expenses. When President Bush came to Arizona and raised $750,000 for Salmon, Salmon only received $500,000, since $250,000 went to expense the fundraiser. Yet Napolitano and another opponent were each awarded a full $750,000 in matching funds. Another way Salmon was penalized was by matching independent expenditures. When Republicans spent $330,000 to help Salmon, Clean Elections wrote checks for that amount to both of Salmon's opponents. Yet when the Democrats spent $1 million to help Napolitano, no such matching check went to Salmon. Napolitano narrowly won the race, no doubt aided by Clean Elections.
The Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit in January 2004 spearheaded by its other top litigator, Nick Dranias, against the state, alleging that the matching-funds provision was unconstitutional. In June 2011, the Supreme Court struck down that provision, significantly dismantling the program. Now, what remains of Clean Elections has been reduced to mostly voter education and outreach.
The Institute has aggressively started going after unions in Arizona, which are bankrupting the state. Bolick filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix last year over its practice of paying police officers “release time,” which allows officers to spend thousands of hours performing union work while getting paid by the taxpayers. The trial court has issued an injunction prohibiting the practice while the case winds its way through the legal system.
In 2010, the Goldwater Institute championed the Save Our Secret Ballot constitutional amendment, and it was subsequently voted into law in four states. That same year, the Institute sued the City of Phoenix over a $97.4 million subsidy to the real estate developer CityNorth to build a high-end retail development. Bolick argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that the subsidy violated the state constitution's gift clause, and although the court did not disallow the incentive, it ruled that in the future there must be additional considerations when providing subsidies to private entities. CityNorth proved to be an unsuccessful venture, and today stands mostly vacant.
The Institute has not been shy about taking on powerful, moderate Republican politicians. It successfully sued Republican Tom Horne, Arizona's Attorney General, when he tried to restrict the ability of charter schools to choose their own curriculum. Bolick stood up to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) when McCain backed the City of Glendale's attempt to subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team with government bonds, in order to entice the team not to leave the state.
One of the Institute's biggest lawsuits currently is against Obamacare. challenging the creation of an Independent Payment Advisory Board—the all-powerful healthcare rationing agency that is set to launch in 2014. Concurrently, the Goldwater Institute drafted the Healthcare Freedom Act, which has been adopted by 10 states and will be on the ballot in four more this fall.
The Goldwater Institute has successfully sued over government transparency. When a school board in the little town of Congress, AZ, tried to prohibit taxpayers from filing public records requests, the Institute sued on behalf of taxpayers and won, setting a precedent around the state ensuring this would never happen again. The Institute filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Corporation Commission in June 2008 challenging its efforts to require renewable-energy standards. The Institute stood up for free speech and won a lawsuit to allow voters to wear a Tea Party shirt into a polling place.
Bolick goes around the country helping similar public policy groups start litigation divisions modeled after the Goldwater Institute's model. Local governments in Arizona now turn to the Institute first when planning new funding schemes, in order to avoid lawsuits later. While some on the right are critical of using the courts to effect policy, labeling it “judicial activism,” Bolick would argue that we don't have a choice. These kinds of issues are ultimately being decided by the courts whether we like it or not, so why not choose the best cases now for the maximum advantage, instead of being blindsided by them later?
The number of people whose lives have been touched by the Institute keeps increasing. One mother discovered the Educational Savings Accounts advocated by the Institute, and was able to put her special needs child in a private school that could properly educate him. Parent Katherine Visser said, “It allows parents to have a choice they wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s been a Godsend.”
The Goldwater Institute may not receive the media coverage that Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker does when he takes on the unions, nor is it a favorite juicy target of the unions, but perhaps that is why it is so successful. Respected by everyone on the right, with an impressive record of raising funding, Bolick and Olsen have developed the Institute to a level that should be emulated by right-leaning organizations everywhere.