PHOENIX — Clint Bolick looks like any other high-powered lawyer, for the most part. But glance down at his index finger, which sports a scorpion tattoo, for first-hand evidence of his unconventional streak.
Clint Bolick, a lawyer at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, is known for aggressive litigation to defend individual liberties.
Mr. Bolick has fought for the right of Arizonans to have their toes nibbled. After successfully defending a tattoo artist, he celebrated by having himself inked. From his perch here at the Goldwater Institute, a high-powered libertarian think tank, Mr. Bolick has even picked a fight with an entire professional hockey team.
From a conservative point of view, there is no end to the government interference in individual liberties going on around the country. Some emanates from Washington, but much of it, in the opinion of Mr. Bolick, bubbles up from the bottom, whether from a small-town school board or the Arizona Board of Cosmetology, which Mr. Bolick has sued twice.
The Goldwater Institute, which plays an outsize role in setting the agenda in this state and has helped set up similar litigation outfits in other parts of the country, sees itself as a watchdog for conservative ideals, one that happens to have at its disposal a frenetic staff of lawyers hungry for courtroom battle.
“There are lots of cozy deals in Arizona, just like everywhere else,” Mr. Bolick said. “The last thing you want is for us to find out. It’s like a skunk coming to a picnic. We ruin everything.”
The institute was founded by conservative activists in 1988, with the blessing of its namesake, Barry M. Goldwater, the longtime Arizona senator and conservative icon. It was primarily a public policy shop that issued reports, until 2007, when it added a crack litigation outfit. The institute’s aggressive lawyers strike fear in the hearts of the state’s public officials.
“While the organization may have veered somewhat from Barry Goldwater’s conscience of conservatism to that of libertarianism, there is little doubt they are a political and legal force in Arizona, perhaps becoming the most influential state think tank organization in America,” said Jason Rose, a Scottsdale publicist active in conservative circles.
Mr. Rose has represented Joseph M. Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who finds himself under fire by the Justice Department and an array of other critics. Among the sheriff’s detractors has been the Goldwater Institute, which does not hesitate to go after Republicans. “Our view is that the role of the sheriff is to effectively enforce the law, and we’ve been sharply critical of his department fulfilling its most basic function,” Mr. Bolick said.
Some of Goldwater’s legal causes can seem rather small-time. Lawyers at the institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation defended the right of a voter to wear a Tea Party T-shirt to the polls in Flagstaff, fought restrictions aimed at limiting tattooing in Tempe and Mesa, and, in the toe-nibbling case, helped a salon owner who clashed with the state’s cosmetology regulators over using special fish imported from China to eat the dead skin off customers’ toes.
The institute, which partially won the fish pedicure case on appeal, went after the Arizona Board of Cosmetology again this month after the agency interfered with a business that provided at-home spa treatments to cancer patients and others
“Defendants’ actions irrationally, arbitrarily, and excessively restrict the ability of plaintiffs to operate a legitimate business,” the Goldwater Institute lawyers wrote in their spirited brief on behalf of Lauren Boice, the owner of Angels on Earth Home Beauty business, in the Tucson area.
Mr. Bolick sees a connection between those clashes and broader matters, like the dispute over matching funds in Arizona’s campaign finance reform system that the institute fought before the Supreme Court. All of the disputes, he said, are linked to what he considers limits on liberty.
The Goldwater Institute is eager to defend “entrepreneurial freedom,” no matter what the business. Tattoo artists may not appear to be the typical clientele for a conservative legal team, but Mr. Bolick was so instinctively against the City of Tempe’s attempts to close a tattoo parlor that after he won the case, he became one of the parlor’s first clients and had the scorpion inked on his right index finger.
The institute’s legal battles stir plenty of out-of-court controversy, which is one of the points.
John McCain, who holds the Senate seat Mr. Goldwater long occupied, has lashed out at the institute for holding up the purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team by a Chicago businessman. The National Hockey League bought the team out of bankruptcy in 2009, and the City of Glendale, which hosts the team, wants to sell more than $100 million in municipal bonds to facilitate the deal and ensure that the team stays there.
The institute has threatened to sue Glendale if the deal goes through, prompting Mr. McCain to say that it has lost touch with Mr. Goldwater’s ideals.
“He always worked very hard to help our economy, to make sure that businesses and industries were attracted to our state,” Mr. McCain said in an interview on local sports radio. “He was proud of our growth. Frankly, I don’t believe that he would agree that we should not realize what the real world is. The real world is that people and places compete for professional teams.”
But Mr. Bolick and his colleagues have been aggressive in going after government subsidies for businesses, wherever they occur. “We’re accused sometimes of being in the lap of business, which elicits a belly laugh from me,” Mr. Bolick said, indicating that prominent Arizona business owners have lobbied the institute’s board of directors — which includes Barry Goldwater Jr., the senator’s son and a former California congressman — to try to head off litigation.
The institute’s influence extends well beyond Arizona, where it says it has won 10 court battles, lost 4 and is in the midst of 12 others. The institute has also helped conservative groups in half a dozen other states, among them Maine, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin, start similar legal units to fight for conservative principles within their borders.
That may mean plenty of angst for liberals in those states. It will probably be a headache for fellow conservatives, too. “Barry Goldwater called them as he saw them, and we try to do that too,” Mr. Bolick said. “He took on people in his own party when he saw the need to do so, and we do, too.”
Local governments in Arizona now consult experts at Goldwater before embarking on financing schemes. Their goal is to avoid receiving a legal brief in the mail typed out with Mr. Bolick’s fierce right finger.