Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. has repeatedly said that he has no memory of belonging to the Federalist Society, but his name appears in the influential, conservative legal organization's 1997-1998 leadership directory.
Having served only two years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit after a long career as a government and private-sector lawyer, Roberts has not amassed much of a public paper record that would show his judicial philosophy. Working with the Federalist Society would provide some clue of his sympathies. The organization keeps its membership rolls secret, but many key policymakers in the Bush administration are acknowledged current or former members.
Roberts has burnished his legal image carefully. When news organizations have reported his membership in the society, he or others speaking on his behalf have sought corrections. Last week, the White House told news organizations that had reported his membership in the group that he had no memory of belonging. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Associated Press printed corrections.
Over the weekend, The Post obtained a copy of the Federalist Society Lawyers' Division Leadership Directory, 1997-1998. It lists Roberts, then a partner at the law firm Hogan & Hartson, as a member of the steering committee of the organization's Washington chapter and includes his firm's address and telephone number.
Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Roberts "has no recollection of being a member of the Federalist Society, or its steering committee." Roberts has acknowledged taking part in some Federalist Society activities, Perino said.
The Federalist Society was founded in 1982 by conservatives who disagreed with what they saw as a leftist tilt in the nation's law schools. The group sponsors legal symposia and similar activities and serves as a network for rising conservative lawyers.
In conservative circles, membership in or association with the society has become a badge of ideological and political reliability. Roberts's membership was routinely reported by news organizations in the context of his work in two GOP administrations and legal assistance to the party during the contested 2000 presidential election in Florida.
But the society's alignment with conservative GOP politics and public policy makes Roberts's relationship with the organization a potentially sensitive point for his confirmation process because many Democrats regard the organization with suspicion.
Yesterday, a liberal organization that has been skeptical of Roberts's nomination said that the White House's description of his relationship with the society showed the need to take a close look at his background.
"As this episode makes clear, the Senate needs to go behind the glowing accounts of Roberts's record to figure out what he really thinks and what he really did," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal organization that has been critical of the Roberts nomination.
"What matters is whether he hung out with them and not whether he signed the form or wrote the dues check," said David Garrow, a law professor at Emory University. "What's important is the intellectual immersion."
The questions about Roberts's involvement with the society may come down to the meaning of the word "membership."
Roberts is one of 19 steering committee members listed in the directory, which was provided to The Post by Alfred F. Ross, president of the Institute for Democracy Studies in New York, a liberal group that has published reports critical of the society.
Among the others on the list are such prominent conservatives as William Bradford Reynolds, a Justice Department civil rights chief in the Reagan administration; Ethics and Public Policy Center President M. Edward Whelan III; and the late Barbara Olson, who was a Capitol Hill staff member at the time. Her husband, former U.S. solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, is listed as president of the chapter.
Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard A. Leo said that either he or another official of the organization recruited Roberts for the committee. Roberts's task was to serve "as a point of contact within the firm to let people know what is going on" with the organization. "It doesn't meet, it doesn't do a whole lot. The only thing we expect of them is to make sure people in the firm know about us," Leo said.
Membership in the sense of paying dues was not required as a condition of inclusion in a listing of the society's leadership, Leo said. He declined to say whether Roberts had ever paid dues, citing a policy of keeping membership information confidential.
Whelan, who has been a member of the Federalist Society but said he had no recollection of his own membership on the steering committee, said the society is tolerant of those who come to its meetings or serve on committees without paying dues.
"John Roberts probably realized pretty quickly he could take part in activities he wanted to" without being current on his dues, Whelan said.
These may seem like fine distinctions, but Roberts has insisted on them. In 2001, after he was nominated by President Bush for the seat he currently holds on the court of appeals, Roberts spoke to Post reporter James V. Grimaldi and asked him to correct an item Grimaldi had written that described Roberts as a member of the Federalist Society. In a subsequent column, Grimaldi wrote that Roberts "is not and never has been a member of the Federalist Society, as previous reported in this column."
Last Wednesday, the day after Bush announced Roberts's nomination, the officials working on the nomination asked the White House press office to call each news organization that had reported Roberts's membership to tell them that he did not recall being a member. Asked yesterday if the White House would have done so knowing about the leadership directory, Perino said "Yes."
Staff writer Michael Powell in New York contributed to this report.