No Secrets Here: Federalist Society Plots In the Open

Vice President Cheney addressing the Federalist Society yesterday. He said the election would not change White House policy on choosing judges.
Vice President Cheney addressing the Federalist Society yesterday. He said the election would not change White House policy on choosing judges. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Election? What election?

The pinstriped tribe of conservative legal minds called the Federalist Society -- more than 1,000 of whom gathered at the Mayflower Hotel this week -- is playing a much longer strategic game. Yesterday they had Sen. Arlen Specter at breakfast, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff before lunch and Vice President Cheney at cocktail hour. The message: full speed ahead with the movement.

"Some people now have taken up the idea that, really, the Federalist Society is kind of like a modern-day da Vinci conspiracy, a secret society that controls all the legal jobs and all the legal decision-making in the administration," Chertoff quipped. "And of course that is nonsense."

Of course.

Except, um . . . what about all those Cabinet secretaries, White House lawyers, Justice Department memo writers and appeals court nominees who are so tight with the society? Not to mention Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a longtime Federalist and Thursday's dinner speaker.

As Cheney said, to big, big applause from the audience of more than 600: "And I assure you, nothing that's happened in the last two weeks" -- what election? -- "will change [President Bush's] commitment to nominating first-rate talent like John Roberts and Sam Alito."

A society executive vice president took time off last year to help the administration with court confirmations. These are people who consider Alito's age, 56, do the actuarial math, and smile: This Federalist is likely to be interpreting the Constitution for another quarter-century or so. That's the long game.

The annual three-day convention was the time to take stock of how far the Federalists have come since they set out to change the debate in America 24 years ago -- another longish game, which they are playing superbly.

The Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies started with a group of conservative and libertarian law professors and students in the Midwest and elsewhere who saw what they believed was a great liberal-activist orthodoxy ensconced everywhere from the classroom to the courtroom. The Federalists believed in limited government, separation of powers and, as stated in their intellectual battle slogan, that "the province and duty of the judiciary is to say what the law is, not what it should be."

Now the group claims about 40,000 members and associates, student chapters on all 180 or so law school campuses, and 70 more chapters for lawyers and judges. The budget from foundations, individuals and corporations is about $7 million.

The intellectual jousting has taken place in the open, with student chapters inviting conservatives to debate tweedy liberal professors.

"If there's a real secret, it's a secret to me, too," said society President Eugene Meyer.

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