The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians seeking reform of the current American legal system in accordance with a textualist or originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Founded in 1982, it is one of the nation's most influential legal organizations. It plays a central role in networking and mentoring young conservative lawyers. According to Amanda Hollis-Brusky, the author of Ideas with Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution, the Federalist Society "has evolved into the de facto gatekeeper for right-of-center lawyers aspiring to government jobs and federal judgeships under Republican presidents."
|Legal status||501(c)(3) nonprofit|
|Purpose||"To promote the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be."|
|Eugene B. Meyer|
Executive Vice President
(FYE September 2015)
The society is a membership organization that features a student division, a lawyers division, and a faculty division. The society currently has chapters at more than 200 United States law schools and claims a membership exceeding 10,000 law students. The lawyers division comprises more than 60,000 practicing attorneys (organized as "lawyers chapters" and "practice groups" within the division) in eighty cities. Its headquarters are in Washington, D.C. Through speaking events, lectures, and other activities, the society provides a forum for legal experts of opposing views to interact with members of the legal profession, the judiciary, law students, and academics.
The society began at Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago Law School in 1982 as a student organization that challenged what its founding members perceived as the orthodox American liberal ideology found in most law schools. The society was started by a group of some of the most prominent conservatives in the country, including Attorney General Edwin Meese, Solicitor General and Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Indiana congressman David M. McIntosh, Lee Liberman Otis, Energy Secretary and Michigan senator Spencer Abraham, and Steven Calabresi. Its membership has since included Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. The society asserts that it "is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be."
The society looks to Federalist Paper Number 78 for an articulation of the virtue of judicial restraint, as written by Alexander Hamilton: "It can be of no weight to say that the courts, on the pretense of a repugnancy, may substitute their own pleasure to the constitutional intentions of the legislature... The courts must declare the sense of the law; and if they should be disposed to exercise WILL instead of JUDGMENT, the consequence would equally be the substitution of their pleasure to that of the legislative body."
Its logo is a silhouette of former president and constitution author, James Madison, who co-wrote The Federalist Papers. Commissioner Paul S. Atkins of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission considered society members "the heirs of James Madison's legacy" in a speech he gave in January 2008 to its lawyers chapter in Dallas, Texas. Madison is generally credited as the father of the constitution and became the fourth president of the United States.
The society's name is said to have been based on the eighteenth-century Federalist Party, however, James Madison associated with Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party in opposition to Federalist Party policies borne from a loose interpretation of the Commerce Clause. The society's views are more closely associated with the general meaning of Federalism (particularly the New Federalism) and the content of the Federalist Papers than with the later Federalist Party.
The society holds a national lawyers convention each year in Washington, D.C. It is one of the highest profile conservative legal events of the year. Speakers have included former ACLU head Nadine Strossen, business executive and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, former BB&T chairman John Allison, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and U.S. Senator Mike Lee.
Members of the society helped to encourage President George W. Bush’s decision to terminate a nearly half-century-old practice of rating qualifications for office for judicial nominees by the American Bar Association. Since the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American Bar Association provided the service to presidents of both parties and the nation by vetting the qualifications of those under consideration for lifetime appointment to the federal judiciary. The society alleged that the bar association showed a liberal bias in its recommendations. Examples given included that while former Supreme Court clerks nominated to the Court of Appeals by Democrats had an average rating of slightly below "well qualified", similar Republican nominees were rated on average as only "qualified/well qualified." In addition the bar association gave Ronald Reagan's judicial nominees Richard Posner and Frank H. Easterbrook its lowest possible ratings of "qualified/not qualified", and Judges Posner and Easterbrook have gone on to become the two most highly cited judges in the federal appellate judiciary.
In The Federalist Society by Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, the authors write that every federal judge appointed by both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush was either a member, or was approved by members of the society. Avery and McLaughlin write that the society is primarily a "group of intellectuals."
The Federalist Society has been influential in the Trump administration, hand-selecting Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and recruiting a slate of conservative judges to fill vacancies throughout the federal judiciary. The society helped to assemble the list of 21 people from which Donald Trump said he would choose a nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nine of the 21 individuals spoke at the society's annual convention in late November 2016, while nearly all of the others were in attendance. Federalist Society members have generally chosen not to criticize President Donald Trump; Politico described the Federalist Society membership as "elite, conservative lawyers who have generally chosen to give Trump a pass on his breaches of long-cherished legal norms and traditions in exchange for the gift of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch." Federalist Society executive vice president Leonard Leo said "What President Trump has done with judicial selection and appointments is probably at the very center of his legacy, and may well be his greatest accomplishments thus far."
In May 2018, the Federalist Society hosted a phone call entitled "examining the legality of the Mueller Investigation", where one of the featured speakers has argued that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is unconstitutional.
Notable members of the society have included:
- Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts[note 1]
- Former United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (who served as the original faculty advisor to the organization)
- Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito
- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
- Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch
- United States Court of Appeals Judge (D.C. Cir.) Thomas Griffith
- Alex Kozinski, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
- United States Court of Appeals Judge (5th Cir.) Edith Brown Clement
- Former United States Court of Appeals Judge (D.C. Cir.) Robert Bork
- Former United States Attorney General Edwin Meese
- Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft
- Former United States Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler, a co-founder of the Federalist Society
- Former United States Solicitor General Theodore Olson
- Former United States Solicitor General Paul Clement
- President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate Orrin Hatch
- Senator Ted Cruz, Republican Senator of Texas
- Senator Todd Young, Republican Senator of Indiana
- Former U.S. Senator and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham
- Former United States Ambassador to the European Union C. Boyden Gray
- Former United States Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton
- Michael Chertoff, former United States Secretary of Homeland Security
- Former general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget and of the Department of Homeland Security Philip Perry
- Former Texas State Representative and Dallas lawyer Bill Keffer
- Former President of Baylor University and former independent counsel Kenneth Starr
- Former Columbia Law School Dean David Schizer
- Professor Richard Epstein of the New York University School of Law
- Professor Randy Barnett of Georgetown University Law Center
- Roger Pilon, Director of Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute
- Labor, employment, and regulation law attorney Eugene Scalia (son of Justice Scalia)
- Roberts was reported to have been a member of the society, but Roberts's membership status was never definitively established. Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said Roberts "has no recollection of ever being a member." Following the report, the Washington Post located the Federalist Society Lawyers Division Leadership Directory, 1997–1998, which listed Roberts as a member of the Washington chapter steering committee; however, membership in the society is not a necessary condition for being listed in its leadership directory.
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