At a recent Friday luncheon, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson cast his eyes over a hotel ballroom crammed with lawyers and wryly welcomed “all of you Federalists who seem to have mastered the secret handshake.”
“For those of you who just stumbled in off the street, it is my duty to advise you that you have stumbled into a right-wing cabal. You will never be the same again,” the government’s one-time chief courtroom lawyer deadpanned as chortles erupted from members of the Federalist Society.
The conservative group has plenty to be smiling about these days.
Founded by three law students in 1982 as a debating society, it now boasts a membership of more than 25,000 that includes prominent members of the Bush administration, the federal judiciary and Congress. Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and other top Bush aides take regular turns at the society’s podium.
Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. has participated in Federalist Society events and given speeches for the organization.
Several press organizations, including the Associated Press, reported after his nomination last week that Judge Roberts had been a member of the Federalist Society. The AP and others printed corrections after the White House said Judge Roberts doesn’t recall ever belonging to the group.
“He doesn’t recall ever paying dues or being a member,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
Northwestern University law professor Steven G. Calabresi, a Federalist founder, said the organization has grown “beyond our wildest dreams. We really started it as a hobby and for fun, to add to the debate and discussion on campus.” Law schools, he said, are largely Democratic in their orientation, so the Federalist Society took off as a countervailing forum for conservative ideas and networking.
Not everyone views the organization in such an innocuous light.
The Institute for Democracy Studies, a liberal group that says it examines “anti-democratic religious and political movements and organizations,” calls the society part of “the infrastructure underlying the right-wing assault on the democratic foundations of our legal system.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, frequently quizzes President Bush’s judicial nominees in the Judiciary Committee about their ties to the society. He has expressed concern that the group may have some sort of informal filtering role in the selection of judicial nominees.
“As we try to monitor the legal DNA of President Bush’s nominees, we find repeatedly the Federalist Society chromosome,” Mr. Durbin said at a 2003 hearing. “Why is it that membership in the Federalist Society has become the secret handshake of the Bush nominees for the federal court?”
As often as Mr. Durbin raises such concerns, they are batted down by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who says he is “darn proud” to serve as co-chairman of the society’s Board of Visitors.
“These aren’t just conservatives. These are top-notch lawyers all over this country, top-notch law students who are just sick and tired of the leftward leanings of our government and, frankly, wanted to bring some balance,” Mr. Hatch countered at one hearing. He added that the organization regularly invites prominent liberals to speak at its forums and debates.
Liberals have set out to duplicate the formula, founding the American Constitution Society five years ago as a kind of counterweight. Many liberals speak enviously of their competition on the right.
“They’ve been remarkably successful in bringing together various parts of the conservative movement,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a liberal Duke University law professor who has addressed the group. “I only want the left to have its own Federalist Society.”