The Federalist Society: From Obscurity to Power

Right-Wingers of a Feather

Founded in 1982 by students at the Yale and University of Chicago law schools, the Federalist Society was initially nurtured by law professors such as Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.9 The Society served as a meeting ground for those who felt out of step with the perceived liberal bent of their schools' curriculum. To this day, the Society continues to attract lawyers, scholars and elected officials whose opinions closely parallel the right-wing views of Bork, Scalia, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Federalist Society is governed by a board of directors co-chaired by Steven Calabresi and David McIntosh, both of whom have strong ultra-conservative credentials. As a Yale law student, Calabresi founded one of the first Society chapters. Upon graduation, he went on to clerk for both Robert Bork at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He also served as a special assistant to Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III and as a speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle.

McIntosh followed a similar path, co-founding one of the Society's first chapters at the University of Chicago law school. McIntosh also served a stint as a special assistant to Meese and as special assistant and deputy legal counsel to Quayle. After his 1994 election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana, McIntosh became a frequent ally of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.10 McIntosh's congressional voting record was extremely conservative, exemplified by his July 28, 1995 vote to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing some sections of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.11 McIntosh, who chaired a subcommittee on regulatory issues, confided to one reporter that he was surprised at the public's support for existing environmental laws.12

In addition to its board of directors, the Federalist Society has a board of visitors (formerly the board of trustees).13 The Society's board of visitors includes Judge Bork and William Bradford Reynolds, President Reagan's assistant attorney general for civil rights who was so controversial that his 1985 nomination for promotion to associate attorney general was defeated by a Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee. During his confirmation hearings, critics claimed that as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, Reynolds had refused to enforce civil rights laws and ignored court rulings with which he disagreed.14 Republican Senator Arlen Specter accused Reynolds of giving misleading testimony, "disregarding the established law," and "elevating [his] own legal judgments over the judgments of the courts."15

Bork has long been revered by his fellow Society members. Several months after the Senate defeated his 1987 Supreme Court bid by the largest margin in history, attendees at the Society's annual conference gave him four standing ovations-and many of them wore "Reappoint Bork" buttons.16

A closer examination of the board of visitors shows the extent to which far-right views dominate the leadership of the Federalist Society. Virtually all of the board members are well-known, right-wing legal and political leaders or otherwise public supporters of radically conservative views. In addition to Bork and Reynolds, the roster includes Edwin Meese III, former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, Senator Orrin Hatch, and former Christian Coalition leader Don Hodel.17

Less well known is board member Gerald Walpin, who has criticized the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision for permitting "lawlessness" and has endorsed Congress' ability to set aside the ruling that obligates police to inform defendants of their rights to remain silent and to have access to legal counsel.18 In materials on the Society's Web site, Walpin has also assailed court precedents guaranteeing the rights of free speech and free expression.19

Also serving on the Society's board of visitors is University of Virginia law professor Lillian BeVier. In an article on privacy rights and the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, BeVier wrote that "the right of privacy that Roe protects" is "a perversion" of the Court's earlier rulings on privacy.20 As applied to the right of reproductive choice, BeVier insisted that "the word 'privacy' is not only unearned but positively misleading," calling the Roe decision the product of an "exercise of judicial power."21 BeVier also sits on the advisory board of the right-wing Independent Women's Forum (IWF), which sponsored a panel discussion last year to lambaste the U.S. Civil Rights Commission-a panel entitled: "Time to Decommission this Commission."22 BeVier was nominated by the elder President Bush to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, but she never received a vote.23

Leading members of the Society are ed to serve on 15 "practice groups" that cover a wide range of issues such as separation of powers and federalism, free speech and election law, labor and employment law, religious liberties, environmental law, and civil rights.24 The Society created its lawyers' division in 1986 for attorneys, business leaders, judges and others who shared three goals: educating the legal community about how the Society's ideas "can affect decisions in the legal and policy worlds"; building a network of lawyers to "exercise leadership in shaping national, state and local policy"; and "[c]ounterbalancing the leftward pressures that hold sway in the organized bar."25

Led by such individuals, the Federalist Society has grown substantially over the years. According to a January 2001 report by the Institute for Democracy Studies, the Society's membership includes over 40,000 lawyers, policy analysts, business leaders and others. In addition, the organization's membership includes 5,000 law students at roughly 140 law schools.26

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