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Clint Bolick, who carefully mapped the litigation strategy that would put the constitutionality of school vouchers before the U.S. Supreme Court, never planned to be a lawyer. After last June, his opponents undoubtedly wished he had not become one. School vouchers — publicly funded tuition assistance grants that enable parents to opt out of failing public schools, often for parochial schools — are one of the most divisive political and educational issues today. The Supreme Court split, 5-4, on June 27 in ruling that vouchers do not violate the establishment clause of the federal constitution. The decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 122 S. Ct. 2460 (2002), is considered by many experts to be the most important church-state ruling in decades. Bolick, vice president of the conservative Institute for Justice (IJ), did not argue Zelman, which involved the Cleveland voucher program, but the victory is clearly his in the eyes of supporters and opponents — a victory 12 years in the making. He and his IJ colleagues are now litigating voucher restrictions in state constitutions — which he hopes will lead again to the Supreme Court. Labeled “the happy warrior” by colleagues, Bolick, 44, switched from teaching to law after student teaching in an inner city school. “I realized constitutional law is the way to make a difference without compromising principles, but no one told me you almost never get to practice constitutional law for a living,” he said. Bolick would get that chance after jobs in the Reagan administration, where he worked for Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and for other conservative public interest legal organizations. In 1991, he joined another student-teaching refugee, William Mellor, to launch the Institute for Justice, which they call an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. Until then, Bolick was perhaps best known for dubbing voting rights scholar Lani Guinier the “quota queen” and undoing her chances to head the Clinton Justice Department’s civil rights division. “There wasn’t a day after we opened our doors when we didn’t have a case defending school choice somewhere,” said Mellor. Their strategy was two-fold: make vouchers a civil rights issue about children and educational opportunities and argue the case not just in court, but before the public, said Bolick. “Our briefs almost never started with establishment clause arguments,” he recalls. “They’d start with background principles — such things as the parent’s right to guide the educational upbringing of their children and the guarantee of equal educational opportunity. Then, we would have rallies outside the courthouse. At most hearings, we would put parents front and center. They would be our best evidence.” Calling Bolick “dogged in his arguments,” his frequent debating opponent Elliott Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, said portraying vouchers as an aid to deprived kids in inner city schools was effective. “In many ways, I think that image is false, but nonetheless, Bolick worked hard to push that image.” In 1997, IJ convened a meeting of church-state scholars, including Douglas Kmiec, dean of Catholic University School of Law, and Michael McConnell, now on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, “to see if there were ways to improve our argument,” said Bolick. “The fact we did this strategy session several years before a case went to the Supreme Court helped us hit the ground running when a case got there.” Bolick was “the school choice movement’s lawyer,” not just in defending existing voucher programs, but in helping to construct programs on the strongest legal footing, said IJ attorney Richard Komer. What kept the IJ staff up the night before the Zelman argument, Komer recalls, “was there were 4,500 kids in Cleveland whose education was in peril. Believe me, you would not want your child in Cleveland public schools. We had to win.”

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