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Twenty-five years ago, it was little more than a redoubt for Ivy League law school students who weren’t shy about raising their hands in class when professor So-And-So asked which misguided few had voted for Ronald Reagan. And these students had some edgy ideas. Originalism? Fringe, at best. Separation of powers? Settled issue. Federalism? Get serious. Those days of lurking in the margins are long gone. The lineup of speakers and guests at the Federalist Society’s 25th anniversary celebration last week in Washington, D.C., was the organization’s greatest tribute to itself yet. On Nov. 15, President George W. Bush and Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia joined Federalist Society members for a black-tie gala at Union Station. Tables started at $10,000. And nearly every major law firm in Washington complied. The following day, Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. gave speeches at the society’s National Lawyers Convention, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Northwest Washington. For society members, aka “Federalists,” this convention was validation beyond imagination. “None of us would have thought anything like this would happen,” says Theodore Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a longtime member who sits on the Federalist Society’s board of visitors. In 25 years, the Federalist Society has reinvigorated a national debate over the rule of law, and, above all, the idea that the Constitution is a thing to be peered into, rather than pawed. Olson, a former solicitor general, says, “More than 40,000 people participate in our programs, which are open to everyone and anyone.” That 40,000 includes three Supreme Court justices, dozens of federal appellate judges, a cabinet secretary, a U.S. senator, a governor, at least five state supreme court judges, several prominent lawyers who have cycled through this administration, and several more who remain there. Yet with so much accomplished, Federalists still haven’t achieved some of the core goals of their early days. Though the Supreme Court has a conservative majority, it is nowhere near lockstep on issues such as originalism and executive power. Law schools remain largely liberal redoubts, and the society’s success has produced a small, yet growing, countermovement, led by the American Constitution Society. Conservative legal and political theory has been central during the Bush years. But the administration’s political free fall may not exactly burnish the reputation of some of the society’s politically active stalwarts. And a possible shift left if the Democrats win the presidency and hold onto Congress would curb the power of many society members. Eugene Meyer, the Federalist Society president, however, sees far brighter prospects: “There were predictions of our demise following the Reagan administration, and after Bush, and, frankly, after Clinton. I think in all the cases, they were underestimating the importance of the ideas themselves.” He also says the society is primed to go to the states, becoming far more involved in building a conservative judiciary at the state level. And he sees a continued effort to push key Federalist goals at law schools. Says Steven Calabresi, the society’s co-founder and chairman: “Eventually I’d like to see us become a conservative and libertarian analog to Harvard Law School � a law school without walls, spread out across the country.” But, he acknowledges, “it’s a tall order.” A tall order in a tougher climate for conservative theory. Though the past 25 years have built an organization with 45,000 members in some 65 cities and 299 professional and student chapters, the question is whether the society is at its peak � or simply getting started. HAVE YOU MET JOHN? It helps to keep the momentum going by keeping membership a bargain. Students pay $5 a year; faculty, $25; and working lawyers, $50. Membership has doubled in the past decade. And the society has a simple formula for all of its chapters: balanced debate on matters of law. Those matters are usually functions of conservative or libertarian thought, originalism foremost among them. But the Federalist Society is widely regarded for giving the “other side” a fair hearing. “I’ve been invited to speak at Federalist Society events countless times,” says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Almost by definition that’s a validation of the organization’s commitment to the free expression of ideas.” Strossen, tempering her praise, continues, “The Federalist Society has been so strong and so dominant that the effect has been to marginalize other ideas, at least within centers of power.” Members make no secret of the society’s networking possibilities. In its earliest days, the society had its boosters during the Reagan administration. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who also spoke at the gala on Nov. 15, and Robert Bork, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit whose nomination to the Supreme Court was dashed in 1987, were among the first. The confirmations of Scalia � the society’s first faculty adviser � and Thomas � who thanked several of the founding members at the gala for helping him through his confirmation � represented major victories for originalism and its adherents. Federalists have held sway in this administration since 2000, when Olson successfully represented Bush against Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore before the Supreme Court. Calabresi says that while many Federalists have gone into powerful government positions, “they did that on their own.” “It’s more like a law school, with its alumni getting these positions,” he says. Alumni from this administration include former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, who helped weld many of the legal underpinnings to the president’s broad assertions of executive power � ideas the Federalist Society has incubated. Justice Department documents released in April, at the pitch of Congress’ inquiry into the U.S. Attorney firings, included a spreadsheet that denoted who among the federal prosecutors were members of the Federalist Society. There were several, fueling the conspiracy theories. “When you’re looking at a r�sum� and you see the Federalist Society listed on there, it’s a sign of commitment,” says one former administration official and Federalist who asked not to be named. “It’s fair to say if you’ve got two candidates and one has been active in the organization and one hasn’t, the one who’s active is going to get the nod.” Leaders say the Federalist Society derives its power from the members, not the other way around. “What if there’s a Democratic administration and it turns out that a lot the lawyers working in it belong to the American Bar Association?” Meyer says. “It’s been dismissed as ‘Oh, a lot of the senior lawyers are members of the ABA,’ like it’s the same as having two hands or something.” THRIVING ON CHANGE The Federalist Society does not take policy positions, as the ABA does. It does not litigate or lobby, unlike the ACLU, and its leaders and staff distance the organization from the individual achievements (or failures) of its members. They measure success, they say, by the vitality of the society’s ideas in public discourse. It is a debate club, they say � perhaps the debate club. “We’re a little bit of an anomaly,” Meyer says. “There’s an idea in Washington that everything has to be advocated for with a specific policy position.” That said, the society is closely associated with the conservative movement and with the successes and failures of an administration that is driven, in part, by ideas and members that got their start at the Federalist Society. Though society members use words like “debate” and “discussion” to describe the group’s raison d’�tre, the events coalesce around conservative and libertarian ideas. If it’s not advocacy per se, it’s something close, in the sense that the Federalist Society endorses a set of ideas that are inherently political. The society “has principles � separation of powers, a judiciary that respects limits on judicial power, individual liberty,” Olson says. “That’s been the key to our success. People think to be a member you have to subscribe to a point of view. You don’t. The society doesn’t take positions.” Still the Federalist Society has thrived on change in Washington. As Lee Liberman Otis, senior vice president and co-founder of the society, says, “In some ways, if the dominant view in Washington comes to be somewhat different, then that may spur more creative thinking” among members. During its early years, the society established itself by drawing some of the top conservative minds, like Scalia and C. Boyden Gray (now U.S. ambassador to the European Union), to its law school events. By the George H.W. Bush era, the group had cobbled together a professional network, which rallied around Thomas’ confirmation, and the conservative furor during the Clinton administration, members say, only helped the group expand outward. “Our momentum has not stalled during Republican times, and it has not flattened out when Democrats are in charge, either,” Olson says. LOCAL AMBITIONS With chapters across much of the country, Meyer says, the group is positioned to take the debate local. “There will be a greater effort to create the types of discussion in the state courts that we’ve had some success with at the federal level,” he says. The individual chapters will be responsible, as they have been, for contouring those discussions to the benches in their states, Meyer says. Otis and Calabresi also still hope to battle at the law school level. “The trend in the last 10 years or so in law schools has been toward liberal law and economics,” says Calabresi, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University. He describes the prevailing curriculum as one that emphasizes maximizing social welfare and community interests, rather than individual rights, the hallmark of conservative and libertarian legal thought. Calabresi and company have a strong base to start with. So far this year, the society has organized more than 1,400 events, and most of them are in law schools. Unlike two decades ago, the organization is clearly a force on law school campuses. It helps that the vast majority of the society’s $9 million budget � 88 percent � is spent on programming. Staff is kept to a minimum, and chapters are responsible for coordinating their own events. “We’re federalists,” Meyers quips, “in more than just name.” This article originally appeared inLegal Times, a publication of ALM.

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