The Goldwater Institute in Phoenix is on a mission to change the world one court case at a time.
It has defended a tattoo artist, and it has opposed public subsidies to a mall in Phoenix and an aquarium in Tempe.
It even challenged Tom Horne, a prominent Republican and Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, when he tried to tell charter schools what they should teach.
In case after case, Goldwater is winning its conservative fights in the courtroom. The legal rulings are restricting governments' influence over businesses and charter schools and limiting how cities can use taxpayer funds.
With each successful legal battle, the institute has become a bigger hurdle for any municipal or state leader who wants to promote a policy that conflicts with the institute's conservative philosophy.
Using the law to muscle Arizona's policymakers has proved an effective strategy for a group that used to rely on writing papers to encourage change.
Goldwater's evolution from intellectual think tank into a legal powerhouse has won it fans.
The aggressive tactics also have drawn criticism from progressives and from some on the right who say the institute is too quick to sue, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for governments' costly legal tangles.
Some conservatives have criticized the institute's use of legal advocacy, saying judicial activism strengthens the courts' influence on political matters.
Still, Goldwater supporters say a legal hammer weighs heavier on politicians than a policy report.
John Norton, a Goldwater board member, believed so strongly in the institute's evolution he donated half a million dollars to support the litigation center.
"I said, 'Let's do this. We can change the world instead of just putting out papers,' " he said.
Goldwater's litigation center, just 3 years old, has caught the eye of leaders in the conservative movement, and groups are trying to replicate the center's work in other states.
George Will, a nationally syndicated conservative columnist, says the institute has had an influence outside Arizona. Conservative think tanks in Michigan and Ohio have launched litigation arms modeled after Goldwater's center.
"Pound for pound, the Goldwater Institute is the best (state-level) think tank in the country," Will said.
Focus on law
The Goldwater Institute was founded in 1988 in Flagstaff. Shortly thereafter, it opened its first office in Phoenix.
The institute was the brainchild of a few prominent conservatives who believed that their ideas about small government and limited regulation would be taken more seriously if there was an umbrella group promoting their agenda.
Goldwater's leaders primarily used editorials, research and lengthy reports to explain and promote their conservative views. Their analysis of state issues raised the institute's profile and won support from businesses and politicians who believed in the think tank's ideals.
But as the institute neared its 20th anniversary, its president, Darcy Olsen, wanted more authority to stop state and city leaders from expanding government.
Olsen reached out to Clint Bolick, a relatively recent Arizona transplant who had moved to the state to lead a non-profit aimed at promoting school choice. Bolick had fought cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and helped found a Washington, D.C., group that bills itself as the nation's only libertarian public-interest law firm.
Under Bolick's watch, Goldwater would become the nation's first conservative think tank to focus on litigating local issues, Olsen said.
"For the first time you would have an organization asking on behalf of taxpayers, is this constitutional? Is this the right action for Arizona," Olsen said.
Olsen imagined creating a model for conservative think tanks nationwide to form similar legal centers. Bolick relished returning to the courtroom.
"I missed suing bureaucrats," he said.
The Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation opened in 2007, and its test case pitted Goldwater against Horne, a prominent state conservative. At issue was Horne's mandate that charter schools align their social-studies curriculum with state standards.
The schools included four of the 10 highest-performing public schools in the state based on AIMS test scores, Bolick argued. Regulating their curriculum to meet state standards would amount to "dumbing down" the schools' studies.
The lawsuit was settled before it went to court. The settlement preserved much of charter schools' autonomy, including allowing the schools the ability to choose alternate social-studies standards.
With a case against the state under its belt, Goldwater was poised for bigger fights.
The court cases
Bolick's office is a tribute to his beliefs and triumphs.
Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are among the signed photos displayed on the wall.
Framed newspaper clippings documenting taxpayers' fights against governments are posted. His biggest Arizona win is commemorated in a political cartoon. Less than three months after fighting Horne, the institute took on Phoenix over its use of a tax incentive for a mall developer. The cartoon depicts a taxpayer bearing the weight of a "Taj Mah-Mall."
Goldwater officials object to taxpayer-funded subsidies, saying that such incentives violate the gift clause of the state constitution. The clause generally limits governments' use of publicly-funded "gifts" to private entities. Phoenix crossed Goldwater on the issue when it offered a big incentive to a developer.
The city would refund half the sales taxes collected from the shops known as CityNorth for about 11 years, or $97.4 million, whichever came first. In return, Phoenix would get 3,180 free public parking spaces.
"They were giving this money to a major developer. Would they give it to the guy who wanted to open a coffee shop?" Bolick said.
The case eventually went before the state Supreme Court. The court's ruling came in January.
The court's decision allowed the incentive but noted that it "quite likely" violated the state Constitution, and it issued new guidelines on when cities can offer tax incentives.
Governmental bodies in Arizona must now consider whether a proposed tax subsidy is worth what the developer offers in return and whether the developer's offer will benefit the public.
Of the 13 cases Bolick has fought for Goldwater, Olsen says CityNorth has had the most impact. About 36 states have similar constitutional provisions, she said, and the case could set a precedent.
Other lawsuits have been less dramatic but equally important to promoting Goldwater's support of small businesses. Tempe "trampled on small-business owners' rights" when city leaders revoked Tom Preston's permit to open a tattoo studio in the city, Bolick said.
Preston was awarded a permit and had begun investing in improvements to the leased space when residents complained that a tattoo parlor would create a negative perception of their neighborhood. They took their complaint to Tempe's City Council.
Tempe sided with the neighbors. A more than two-year legal battle ensued.
Last year, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge sided with Preston. The judge said Tempe could not restrict a legal business based on someone's perception. He ordered Tempe to reinstate the permit.
While Goldwater's legal advocacy has won support, some policymakers are criticizing the institute for being too quick to sue.
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman questions the institute's tactics and wonders if Bolick is veering Goldwater off track.
"I have long respected the Goldwater Institute and the philosophy behind its view of limited government," he said. But its lawyers "shoot first and ask questions later. That's what causes me to ask the question if ... it's really about publicity and fundraising."
In addition to the tattoo case, Goldwater has sued Tempe over a subsidy it offered the developer of an aquarium. Hallman said it is irresponsible to sue if there is an alternative to costly litigation, knowing taxpayers ultimately pay for state and municipalities' legal battles.
Public-interest law firms benefit residents who cannot afford to pay for legal fights against governments, policy experts say. But there are potential drawbacks to the institute's work.
An interest group's influence could grow to the point that governments won't support a public program or economic development for fear a costly and high-profile lawsuit will ensue, said James Svara, an Arizona State University public-affairs professor who specializes in local governments.
"The cost of litigation is an important factor and whether you're in a position to absorb the cost," he said. "There's a fine line between stopping a government from doing something inappropriate and . . . the use of legal action to curtail . . . a government from carrying out legal powers or programs."
Paul Bender, an ASU law professor who specializes in U.S. and Arizona constitutional law, argues there are also drawbacks for Arizonans who do not agree with Goldwater's ideas.
Goldwater wants a more conservative Arizona, with less regulation, he said, but that may not benefit residents in the long run.
"I think their ideas are wrong. But at least they're fighting in the courtroom, where we can follow them and not making deals in some back room," he said.
Tim Hogan leads the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, a progressive public-interest law firm. Hogan has filed a court brief siding with the Arizona Corporation Commission's efforts to adopt renewable-energy standards and against Goldwater's lawsuit to stymie such standards.
"I don't see how investing in renewable energy can be a bad thing for our state," he said.
Still, Hogan welcomes Bolick's legal fights, saying Goldwater is bringing state issues to the forefront where Hogan can decide whether his law center will oppose Goldwater's.
Robert Nagel is a conservative who has spent his life arguing against the kind of judicial activism Bolick and Hogan promote. The University of Colorado constitutional law professor has even debated Bolick on the issue.
Those who use judicial activism often argue "that they've got the correct interpretation of the Constitution," he said.
"My objection, especially if this is supposed to become a systematic sort of movement, is what happens to the political culture when people begin to rely on the left or the right to achieve their goals using judicial activism. It saps confidence in the political system," he said.
Litigation can also exacerbate highly charged issues.
"They winners feel that they've achieved some sort of moral authority and the losers feel completely discredited," he said. "It tends to drive out comprise, and the result in terms of the political debate is: You get a lot more extremist and angry debate, which needless to say we don't need any more of in our political climate."
Goldwater has three cases complete, 10 active cases and no plans to slow its litigation.
Will, the conservative columnist, argues that conservatives' use of legal advocacy at the state level is long overdue. Failing to check state and municipal governments' actions has spurred "democracy's excesses," he said.
"Conservatives have been careless and dogmatic about simply denouncing judicial activism," he said.
Goldwater supporters argue that any conservative who frowns on the institute's use of legal advocacy is out touch with today's political reality.
"If some dimwitted, Neanderthal, childish, immature person thinks this is wrong, I think he needs an education," said Norton, the Goldwater board member, third-generation Arizonan and former deputy secretary of Agriculture in President Ronald Reagan's administration.
"We've got to change the world. If we're going to do that, we need to do more than put out studies," he added.
Goldwater's expanded influence is evident in the string of city leaders engaging the institute, hoping to avoid a legal battle.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has invited Bolick to be part of a citizens commission the mayor wants to form to review development agreements.
"It's better to air all the issues and be open today than it is waiting two or three years and having expensive litigation for everybody," he said.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith recently consulted with Goldwater officials to discuss a Mesa plan that would add a surcharge to spring-training tickets to improve team facilities.
"When we found out that the Goldwater Institute had some questions or might have some problems, we sort of reached out to try and understand where they're coming from. I think we found we're not as far apart as people thought we are," he said.
The mayors' attitudes are what Goldwater had hoped for when it launched its litigation center.
"Our town officials, our city councilman, our state legislators know that they are being watched and will be held to account," Olsen said.
Bolick is eager to lead his small team, which includes two attorneys and a handful of legal interns, into many more legal battles.
He is unapologetic about Goldwater's legal advocacy.
Laughing, he says he will celebrate the end of Preston's case with his first tattoo. A one-finger typist, Bolick wants a scorpion tattooed on the index finger he uses to write legal complaints.