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When Lisa Brown was a student at University of Chicago Law School in the early 1980s, some of her right-leaning peers got together and started a little conservative law club. Brown, a future civil rights attorney who would serve as counsel to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration, didn’t join, finding the group’s views radical and regressive. The students called their group the Federalist Society, and 25 years later, it would claim more than 45,000 members, chapters at every one of the nation’s 196 accredited law schools, and a cornerstone role in an ideological revolution in the law that reaches to the heart of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. “You’ve got to respect how successful they’ve been,” says Brown, now executive director of the American Constitution Society, the progressive legal organization founded in 2001 that has sought to make itself a counterweight to the Federalist Society. “They grew up with their members.” That’s a luxury the ACS doesn’t have. Given the Federalist Society’s nearly 20-year head start, the ACS has spent much of its first six years playing catch-up. On law school campuses, the ACS is now, quantitatively at least, close to pulling even: The ACS has 158 student chapters that collectively sponsor lectures, debates, and social events every night of the week. But in terms of turning out platoons of seasoned practitioners and jurists, the ACS recognizes it’s not nearly there yet. “The people that were in private practice the day ACS started have a million other commitments in life,” says Paul Smith of Jenner & Block, a member of the ACS board and one of the society’s legal stars. “While we have a lot of active members, it’s not comparable to the 25-year-old Federalist Society.” Still, in the opinion of ACS leadership, the Federalist Society’s reputation as an ideological powerhouse is overblown. While two decades of success in feeding members to the federal bench may have given the organization mystique, ACS members believe it doesn’t take being a secretive cabal to influence the judicial debate. “Both of these organizations are about ideas, talking about them, and ultimately seeing them implemented in policy,” Brown says, adding that one of the lessons the ACS took from the Federalist Society was that neither open political activism nor the endorsement of judicial nominees was necessary to have a voice in legal affairs. For example, during the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., the ACS moved swiftly to rebut research from conservatives that efforts by Senate Democrats to pin Roberts down on controversial cases was unprecedented and unfair. ACS member attorneys produced a paper showing that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was similarly grilled by Republicans during her 1993 confirmation hearings. The Advance, one ACS journal, publishes short papers intended to reach beyond the legal community, and a second, the Harvard Law and Policy Review, dissects public policy debates within a legal framework. “We have the pendulum swinging back a little bit again,” says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and an occasional participant in both Federalist Society and ACS events. As to the Federalist’s much vaunted success in getting current and former members on the bench, the ACS notes that it helps to be philosophically aligned with the political party that has controlled the White House for 19 of the last 27 years. The Federalist Society’s celebrated role in grooming conservative federal judicial nominees would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of the past and present Bush administration and Republican majorities in the Senate, and Brown suggests that the ACS now plays a similar role in preparing its 12,000 dues-paying members for the judicial spotlight. That sort of intellectual counterbalance, Brown says, is good for both the ACS and the Federalist Society. “It’s healthy for our democracy to have both of them,” Brown says. “It wasn’t healthy to have one.” Steven Calabresi, a professor of law at Northwestern and a founder of the Federalist Society, makes a related but slightly different point. “The Society,” he says, “has been more vibrant where it has had something to push against.”
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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