Meet Arizona's most powerful political couple, who are on opposite ends of an abortion ban

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Before she voted to repeal Arizona’s near-total abortion ban, state Sen. Shawnna Bolick rose from her seat on the Senate floor to painstakingly detail one woman’s three difficult pregnancies.

The first pregnancy was not viable and would require a dilatation and curettage, known as D&C — which, as the doctor informed the patient, is “like having an abortion” because tissue is removed from the uterus.

The second pregnancy resulted in a healthy baby boy, but required an emergency C-section. The third delivered a baby girl, but demanded 23 weeks of bed rest.

Then Bolick revealed the story’s twist.

“I know the chronicles of these pregnancies quite intimately because they’re all my own,” she said. “None of my pregnancies were easy, and none of them would have been possible without the moral support of my husband.”

And yet the Republican state senator omitted a crucial detail about her husband: that he was part of the reason she had to cast the controversial vote. Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick was part of the court’s four-seat majority that allowed enforcement of an 1864 law prohibiting abortions except when a woman’s life is at risk.

“Justice Bolick made a legal construction decision. That’s what judges do,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy and a staunch opponent of abortion. “Sen. Bolick made a policy decision. That’s what state senators do. They both were carrying out the duty of the position that they hold.”

In an op-ed Tuesday in the Arizona Republic, Clint Bolick said his marriage could easily withstand his wife’s vote: “That caused no marital disharmony because she is a policymaker and I am not.”

By coincidence, Justice Bolick faces a retention vote in November, just as Sen. Bolick is up for election. Both have already felt political backlash over the 1864 law. Will Arizona’s most powerful couple in government also pay a price at the ballot box — one for permitting the abortion ban, the other for ending it?

The entanglement of politics in the Bolicks’ marriage stretches back long before abortion became a crucial 2024 issue in the battleground state.

After obtaining his law degree from UC Davis in 1982, Clint Bolick, 66, made a name for himself as a constitutional literalist in conservative legal circles across the country and the globe — among them, the Federalist Society and the Goldwater Institute.

“He’s not your typical run-of-the-mill, you know, right-wing Republican,” said Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround Inc., a Phoenix-based political consulting firm. “He has an intellectual basis — deep intellectual basis — for what he believes in.”

In 2004, Clint Bolick became general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice, where he joined his wife on their mission to change laws to allow parents to use taxpayer money to help pay for their children’s private school education.

“I never reported directly to Clint while he was working at the Alliance … full-time,” Sen. Bolick wrote in a LinkedIn endorsement of her husband. “IF I did I think I would’ve barfed — he’s my husband, but also an important colleague in the school choice movement.”

The state senator, 49, declined an interview request for this story, saying in a text message, “My husband and I both value one another and have had an incredible 24 years of marriage.”

For Sen. Bolick, who describes herself on the social media site X as a wife, mom and school-choice advocate, a career in education policy led her to work in government. Then-Gov. Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican, appointed her to the Arizona Early Childhood Education and Health Board in 2015; he appointed her husband to the state Supreme Court a year later.

She won a seat on the Arizona House of Representatives in 2018. Her profile rose in the wake of the 2020 election, when Arizona was roiled by election denialism, as she sponsored a bill that included a provision to give state legislators the ability to overrule the vote of the people. The bill died in committee.

The Washington Post reported that a couple of months earlier, Ginni Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, had emailed then-Rep. Bolick asking her to support a “clean slate of electors.”

Bolick responded with guidance for how to submit claims of voter fraud in Arizona, the Post reported, along with the message, “I hope you and Clarence are doing great!”

The Thomases are close with the Bolick family, according to the Post and the Arizona Mirror, which reported Justice Thomas is godparent to the Bolicks’ son.

When the Arizona Capitol Times in 2019 asked Shawnna Bolick how she and her husband juggled their unique situation, she responded: “We don’t talk much, let’s just say that. Our schedules don’t match up. I can’t even ask him for advice, which stinks because some issues might go to him.”

(For a time, according to the newspaper, the family was also represented in the Arizona executive branch, with their teenage son Ryne in the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family.)

Last summer, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors unanimously appointed Shawnna Bolick to finish a term vacated by Sen. Steve Kaiser, a Republican who resigned amid frustrations with his party’s far-right flank.

Justice Bolick administered his wife’s swearing-in ceremony, she wiping away tears as he looked on with pride.

“Sweetheart, you never cease to amaze me, and I am enormously proud of you,” he said. Given their different roles, he observed, he couldn’t campaign for her or offer legislative advice.

“But there are three things I can do,” he said. “First of all, is to commend you for being one of the most amazing public servants I’ve ever known — and I mean that in the literal and best sense of the word. Second is I can swear you in.” He paused. “And the third is that after I swear you in, I can kiss you — and I don’t normally do that.”

After she swore her oath, he did.

In a Federalist Society keynote address two years ago at Arizona’s Waldorf Hotel, Justice Bolick described originalism and federalism — the division of power between national and local governments — as two of his “favorite ‘isms.’”

“We are oath-bound to give those words their original public meaning,” he said, adding, “We do not have one constitution, we have 51 constitutions. … We are empowered to give our constitutions a meaning that provides greater protection for individual liberty than is recognized at the federal level, but not less.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the Arizona Legislature passed a law — which Shawnna Bolick co-sponsored — that would restrict abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. But just five months after she was sworn into office as a senator, the Arizona Supreme Court took up the case examining whether the limited abortion ban superseded the 1864 law.

“Having a Supreme Court justice married to a key state legislator causes all sorts of problems,” said Paul Weich, a semiretired lawyer and Arizona politics watcher who runs two blogs covering the state court and Legislature.

When asked by a CBS station whether he should recuse himself from the case, Justice Bolick replied: “I will recuse in any challenge to the constitutionality of a law in which I am aware that my wife was a prime sponsor or prominently identified as a supporter or opponent. Otherwise, I will not.”

“This case involves statutory interpretation and does not challenge the constitutionality of the 15-week abortion limit, and thus presents no conflict of interest,” he wrote. “I therefore have an ethical duty to participate.”

The court issued its ruling on the 1864 ban in April. In his op-ed, Justice Bolick asserted that the court’s opinion was “solidly grounded in law.” He pointed to previous court decisions that he said angered activists from both parties.

“In our state, the people have the ultimate lawmaking power, including the ability to overturn our decisions,” he wrote. “But we cannot afford to have conscientious judges voted out for unpopular decisions.”

Already, activists have mounted an effort to unseat him in his upcoming retention election — an attempt the justice decried in his op-ed. Until recently, the justice said he was undecided whether he would seek retention. But he finally said he would, saying he intended to defend the judiciary’s independence.

“As a judge I have never ruled on the basis of politics — apparently, to my current detriment,” he wrote. “I would rather go down in electoral flames than to compromise my constitutional oath.”

Sen. Bolick reposted her husband’s article on X, writing, “Just like November 2018, I look forward to campaigning to retain my husband as the only appointed independent to our state’s highest court. Don’t let the Left hijack our independent judiciary we have in AZ.”

Still, Justice Bolick’s literalist reading of the law put his wife in a tricky predicament. Facing her first election as senator in north Phoenix, one of the most closely divided swing districts in the state, she must appeal both to her Republican base and Democrats who prefer a more moderate stance on abortion.

Knowing that political reality, she stood before her colleagues May 1 in the Senate, where Republicans hold a two-seat majority, and launched into her story of three pregnancies.

“She is a notoriously private person,” said Coughlin. “I mean, I have not seen her ever, ever, ever, ever expose her personal feelings as she did in that 20-minute speech on the floor. All of us were looking at each other, going, ‘What is going on? What is this about?’”

Growing restless, her Republican colleagues called multiple times for a “point of order,” interrupting her speech to ask how it pertained to the matter at hand — the 1864 abortion law.

“The comments are germane because not every pregnancy is the same,” she replied.

She went on to criticize some Planned Parenthood practices before pivoting back to the proposed repeal of the law. When she said she’d vote for repeal, the chamber erupted with jeers. Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, signed the bill into law.

Bolick’s opponent in the Senate race, Democratic House Rep. Judy Schwiebert, said she was “moved” by Bolick’s remarks. Explaining her own passionate support for abortion access, Schwiebert cited her son and daughter-in-law; they tried to have a child through in vitro fertilization, only for the pregnancy to become nonviable and require an abortion.

But Schwiebert said she was disappointed that Bolick targeted abortion providers in her speech.

“I suppose that she was trying to thread a needle of explaining her vote to get sympathy or support from Democratic voters, but at the same time, trying to bash Planned Parenthood types of organizations, because that plays well with her base,” Schwiebert said. “So it was a little bit of a convoluted speech, unfortunately, because of that for me.”

Coughlin, of the political consulting firm in Phoenix, believed Sen. Bolick’s speech was genuine but predicted it would not help her in November.

“My money’s on Schwiebert winning that race,” he said.

He also predicted that a proposed ballot measure, which would enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution, would pass in Bolick’s district.

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