The Federalist Society: From Obscurity to Power

From Network to Policy

In the face of clear evidence of the Federalist Society's pervasive ideological bent, Volokh and other spokespersons expect us to believe that the organization has no desire to convert its ideology into legislative, judicial or political action. Volokh has claimed that the Society's charter "is to create discussion, not to lobby," and Assistant U.S. Attorney General and Society member Viet Dinh has described the organization merely as "a forum for discussion of law and public policy from both sides."77 Although the Federalist Society does sponsor debates and does not lobby or file briefs in the mold of a traditional advocacy organization, it is evident that the Society does aggressively promote its ideological point of view.

Instead of advocating change piecemeal-one lawsuit or one bill at a time-the Society seeks to produce much broader change by altering the entire legal landscape. This includes developing and promoting far-right positions, guiding law students and young lawyers accordingly, and influencing who will become judges, top government officials, and decision-makers. It urges law students to join its law school chapters by noting that the Society "creates an informal network of people with shared views which can provide assistance in job placement."78 To sum up the importance of the Society's outreach to law school students, the right-wing magazine Insight quoted former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter's observation: "In the last analysis, the law is what the lawyers are."79 And once they become lawyers, the Society's lawyers' division seeks to build a network of attorneys to "exercise leadership in shaping national, state, and local policy."80

The Federalist Society's overall methods were best captured by its own executive director, Eugene Meyer, in a 1996 guest editorial in a Heritage Foundation publication. Meyer wrote that his organization "has built a network designed to overcome legal abuses and to return America to a legal system which operates according to the design of the founders."81 Through this network of right-wing lawyers, government officials, scholars and judges, the Society seeks to fundamentally remake the American legal system.

Curtis Moore, a former Republican counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, recently offered a case study of how the Society's "network" operates and how far it extends. He noted the relentless attacks leveled by ultra-conservatives in Congress on the Clean Air Act. Moore noted that in May 1998 Senator Orrin Hatch filed a 29-page brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, attacking the EPA's particulate standard. The brief, Moore explained, "was written by one member of the Federalist Society board, C. Boyden Gray, to be filed on behalf of another member of the Federalist Society board, Orrin Hatch, to defend the corporate interests of a member of the Business Advisory Council of the Federalist Society, Joseph Cannon of Geneva Steel, in a case to be heard by two judges, [Douglas] Ginsburg and [Stephen] Williams, who are active participants in Federalist Society events…" In addition, Gray had lobbied on behalf of Geneva Steel from January 1996 to July 1997.82

With the increased public scrutiny that the Society has recently received, Meyer and other leaders have downplayed its objectives. In April, for example, Meyer insisted that the group is simply interested in "discussion and in getting ideas heard."83 Yet even activists on the far right don't seem to accept this explanation. Said ultra-conservative activist Grover Norquist: "If Hillary Clinton had wanted to put some meat on her charge of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy,' she should have had a list of Federalist Society members and she could have spun a more convincing story."84

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