The Blog

Society of Doom?

Despite what you may have heard, there's nothing bad about the Federalist Society.

12:00 AM, Oct 20, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The nature of these functions varies a bit from branch to branch within the Society, but most of them involve a debate over some sort of legal issue combined with the consumption of food and/or alcohol. The activity level of the branches are less ambitious and mysterious than the Society's critics imply. For instance, the liberal Institute for Democracy Studies (IDS) has accused Federalist Society members of being in "the process of institutionalizing a comprehensive agenda challenging every aspect of a democratic judicial system."

Contrary to the fears of the IDS, all Federalist Society functions are open to the public. What's more, the discussions rarely include achieving final conquest of the American judicial system. As one member of a Midwestern branch notes, "We get together every other month for beers, except when we forget to."

Why do Supreme Court nominees now fear even a tincture of association with the Federalist Society? Even the president of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen, praises group. And since the Federalist Society is a combination of libertarians and conservatives, it goes almost without saying that within the membership there is a healthy disagreement on many issues.

But what the membership does have in common is that it's composed of attorneys and law students who define themselves as something other than liberal. That in itself makes the members a minority in law firms and on law school campuses.

New York City lawyer Dan McLaughlin, author of the blog The Baseball Crank, is typical of the Federalist Society's membership. Although he has attended numerous Society functions, he "never exactly got around to joining." McLaughlin lauds the group's educational and networking opportunities. And he mocks the notion that the Federalist Society is some sort of secretive fraternity bent on political and judicial conquest.

He sums up the organization this way: "Fundamentally, the Federalist Society is a debating society. It doesn't use member dues for political campaigns. It doesn't file briefs in court. It doesn't adopt positions on particular issues, and its membership is almost certainly too fractious to get agreement on any such positions anyway other than maybe 'liberal judges are bad' and 'we should take the Constitution seriously.'"

AND YET the left-wing alarm bells regarding the Federalist Society continue to go off with some regularity.

In the July Washington Post story about Roberts, Emory law professor and Pulitzer Prize winner David Garrow put his concerns regarding Roberts and the Federalist Society this way: "What matters is whether he hung out with them." The professor feared Roberts might have undergone "intellectual immersion" as a result of this association.

Once you know what the Federalist Society is, comments like Garrow's are obviously ridiculous. As a law professor he should know better and almost unquestionably does. The White House, too, surely knows how absurd the demonization of the Federalist Society is. And yet distortions like Garrow's only become more deeply ingrained when the White House reflexively distances its nominees from the Federalist Society whenever a link is suggested.

Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com