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President George W. Bush may have been the Federalist Society’s most esteemed guest last night at the conservative legal group’s 25th anniversary gala, but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, never one to mince words, best summed up the reason for the occasion: “We thought we were just planting a flower among the weeds of academic liberalism. It turned out to be an oak.” Scalia, a professor at the University of Chicago at the dawn of the society in 1982, was the group’s first faculty adviser. He and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. have lent their support over the years, and all were on hand last night to congratulate the society on its growth and stake in the legal marketplace of ideas. But first, Bush. He entered the Union Station ballroom, after a brief introduction, to a standing ovation that took a full minute to peak and ebb. Bush told the crowd of about 1,700 that the judicial confirmation process had broken down, repeating his statement released earlier yesterday that it had become a “search-and-destroy mission.” Three of Bush’s nominees, including Peter Keisler, former assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, have been held up in the Senate for more than a year. Bush announced seven more nominations yesterday. Keisler, a longtime society member, was also in attendance last night. “Everyone in this room has watched a good person who has had his or her name unfairly tarnished by the confirmation process,” Bush said, referring at points to Thomas’ bitter confirmation hearings in 1991. “What you do not see are the good men and women who never make it to the confirmation process. Lawyers approached about being nominated will politely decline because of the ugliness, uncertainty, and delay that now characterizes the confirmation process.” Bush thanked the society for its efforts, saying, “A new culture is taking root in our legal community. And principled men and women who understand the Constitution and are able to defend it are finding their way to our nation’s law schools and law faculties and law firms — and even to the corridors of power here in Washington, D.C.” The Federalist Society has penetrated those corridors, with members such as former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who emceed the event, and former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, among the group’s first speakers in the 1980s. “It was beyond the imagination of any of us at the time just how great and powerful this organization has become in just 25 years,” Meese said. So powerful, in fact, that it spawned a counterorganization, the American Constitution Society, “a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one,” he mocked. Alito, who spoke last, dealt with lighter fare. He said he came to find out about the Federalist Society in the late 1980s, through another legal organization, which met irregularly at a Chinese restaurant in Washington. When he went to his first Federalist Society meeting, the contrast was profound. The group was serious and eager, he said. “What an incredible accomplishment,” he said of the group’s growth. Alito told the crowd that organizers had held him to three minutes’ speaking time. He spent a third of that time explaining, to laughter, how the other justices had been allotted more time. At some point in the night, he, Thomas, and Scalia had huddled to discuss their speeches. That’s when he found out. “That’s how the Supreme Court does everything,” he said.
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected].

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