Federalist Society Shows Its Clout

If 25 years ago the Federalist Society was a fringe legal group founded by a small group of conservative law students, the anniversary gala last night at Union Station signaled how the now 42,000-member organization has become one of the most powerful in the country.

+ More

If 25 years ago the Federalist Society was a fringe legal group founded by a small group of conservative law students, the anniversary gala last night at Union Station signaled how the now 42,000-member organization has become one of the most powerful in the country.

The guest list of 1,800 was a who's who of the conservative legal world; speakers included not just President Bush but three Supreme Court justices.

"This is a miracle," said Theodore Olson, a former solicitor general for Bush, who was the master of ceremonies for the event.

The Federalist Society espouses belief in the literal interpretation of the Constitution. It now has chapters on every law school campus, and its members hold positions in some of the most important places in government. Both of Bush's Supreme Court appointees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, are members. Justice Antonin Scalia was the first faculty sponsor at one of the earliest campus chapters as a professor at the University of Chicago. ("We thought we were just planting a wildflower among the weeds of academic liberalism and it turned out to be an oak," Scalia told the group last night.) Dozens of other judges are card-carrying members, and it was almost seen as a key credential to win one of the top spots in the Bush Justice Department.

In 100 years, founding member Leonard Leo said, the group "will be known for having reset the debate in the legal system." It was in many ways an understatement, because the group has already done just that.

A 12-minute memorial video, which included testimony from the ACLU and former Clinton-era Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, lauded these accomplishments: how the small group blossomed and helped foster debate across the legal community.

But for all the praise about the group's openness inside the legal community, members were hardly shy about saying who they thought was right. And few held back dismissive statements about the "liberal" American Bar Association or the American Constitution Society, a parallel liberal legal organization modeled after the Federalist Society. "A misnomer if I ever heard one," Edwin Meese, attorney general in the Reagan administration, said of the group's name.

Emma Schwartz