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An ideological turf war has broken out in many of the nation’s law schools, as liberals try to raise an army of law students and lawyers to fight what they call a conservative dominance of American law.

Enter the American Constitution Society (ACS), a fledgling group of lawyers, law students and left-leaning academics who have united to counter the better-known Federalist Society, a two-decades old group that promotes conservative thought and has taken on the role of watchdog of the American Bar Association.

For more than 20 years, the powerful 30,000-member Federalists have dominated the law school circuit – where the recruiting for fresh blood begins – as they have built an empire of 145 student chapters, providing connections, résumé boosters and, oftentimes, clerkships in high places. But now the liberals want a piece of the action, and they’re fighting back, one campus at a time.

“It turns out that there was an enormous thirst for an organization like this,” said ACS board president Peter Rubin, a Georgetown University Law Center professor who co-founded the ACS in the spring of 2001. Since its inception, the group’s student chapters have grown from 65 to more than 100, and its overall membership has increased from 1,000 to 6,000.

“We have a long way to go to be close to what the Federalist Society does in terms of the validity of their resources and the profound influence that they play in American law every day. But we’re working on it and we’re catching up,” Rubin said.

The ACS has recruited some heavyweights, including former Attorney General Janet Reno, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. – all of whom serve on the ACS board of advisers. And at the group’s upcoming annual national convention in Washington on June 18, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is scheduled to speak.

“Over the past 20 years there’s been an organized conservative movement and it’s been successful . . . but those visions are really out of step with what most Americans think law ought to be,” Rubin said.

Like the Federalist Society, the ACS doesn’t litigate or take positions on cases, which makes judges feel comfortable about participating in its events. The ACS also envisions having a national network of practice groups, as do the Federalists, who have organized groups specializing in more than a dozen areas of law.

BRING IT ON

Former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, one of the more prominent voices in the Federalist Society, said there’s room for another viewpoint in the legal arena, even if it’s very different from his.

“My view is the more debate the better. It fosters a polar understanding of legal issues and can serve as a great benefit for the entire legal profession,” said Starr, who believes both the Federalist and American Constitution societies are much needed alternatives to the American Bar Association.

“I’ve remained a member of the ABA but I’ve had issues with the ABA,” Starr said. “I think [both societies] fulfill a very useful function.”

Reno, now a visiting fellow at the University of Miami School of Law, said, “I’ve always had an enormous respect for the Federalist Society, but I don’t think that it reflects the laws that apply to all people. I don’t think that its voice speaks for all the people.

“Law students want something real,” Reno said. “They want to understand how they can participate and what a difference they can make.”

Meanwhile attorney Roger Clegg, another Federalist member, isn’t as quick to welcome the emerging ACS.

“I don’t know that it’s necessary to have yet another left-winged legal organization,” said Clegg, who chairs the Federalist Society’s civil rights practice group and is chief counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity.

“I don’t want to say that I welcome [the ACS] – for all I know they could have something terrible in their agenda,” Clegg said. “But I can say that conservatives welcome more debate about legal issues because we are confident that our views are correct and that if there is a free and open debate, we will win.”

Both sides claim the other holds more power. Organizers from the Federalist Society said the reason they formed was to counter the dominant left. But the American Constitution Society says it formed to challenge the ascending right.

“This is a pose that the Federalist Society has always used: We’re the victims. We’re the downtrodden . . . and it’s just not true. American law is dominated by conservatives,” Rubin asserted. “And you don’t have to go further than the Supreme Court reports to see that, or pick up any copy of the circuit court decisions . . . in case after case after case a conservative view is clearly dominant.”

Longtime Federalist member Michael Rosman – who was at the Federalist Society’s initial organizational meeting at Yale in the fall of 1981 – disagrees. As a conservative law student at a liberal college, he recalled feeling like “an oppressed minority” and said that that feeling is still present on campuses today.

“There’s very little of the legal culture that has moved any significantly to the right,” he said. “The law schools, as far as I can tell, still have a large number of liberal professors teaching there.”

Lisa Brown, executive director of the ACS, said that so far, there’s been no tension between the groups. “There’s no brawl going on. It’s an intellectual debate,” said Brown, former counsel to Vice President Al Gore and a former partner at Shea & Gardner in Washington.

For now, Brown stressed that the ACS is still in building mode, working to recruit big names to promote the group’s belief, and establish a network of moderate and progressive lawyers. The ACS also is seeking financial backers. Its $1.8 million budget is about half the size of the Federalist Society’s $3.6 million a year.

Jack Theis, president-elect of the Northwestern ACS chapter, can attest to the power of the Federalists.

“At Northwestern, the Federalist Society has about 10 to 12 events a year and seems to draw from an almost endless supply of resources,” Theis said. “No one on campus hit back with an effective countervailing response. The truth is that the Federalist Society dominates on campus, and we need to push back on the issues.”

J. Alexander Cooke, president of the Yale Federalist Society, said he is skeptical about the success of the ACS chapters.

“My sense of their success is that at such schools as Yale Law, they haven’t been able to match the vibrancy of the Federalist Society chapters,” Cooke said. “The faculty at such schools, especially in the area of constitutional law, is usually decidedly liberal, and, therefore, it’s more difficult for the local ACS chapters to figure out what they can do to distinguish their events from normal classes in which their viewpoints are already so prominent. For the Federalist Society, that isn’t a problem and may explain why we have such a committed following.”

This article originally appeared in The National Law Journal , a publication of American Lawyer Media.

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