The Conservative Cabal That's Transforming American Law.


ONE AFTERNOON IN NOVEMBER 1999, only a few weeks after leaving the Office of the Independent Counsel, Kenneth Starr relaxes happily in the lobby of Washington's Mayflower Hotel. The hotel is hopping. Eight hundred lawyers have converged from all over the country for a convention--three days of celebrity gazing, brisk intellectual discourse, and hard-headed networking. It is the annual lawyers' meeting of the Federalist Society--a conservative legal fellowship to which Starr belongs--and he is in his element. The former special prosecutor is surrounded by a small group of gray-suited young "Feddies," who introduce themselves, conduct short interviews, whisper words of homage, or simply stare in awe. Starr beams--clearly enjoying this moment of adulation.

On friendly turf now, Starr may also be projecting feelings of gratitude For as Joe Conason and Gene Lyons demonstrate in The Hunting of the President (see excerpts on pages 17-18), Starr and the OIC benefited enormously from the efforts of a network of well-placed lawyers who, like Starr and other Republican luminaries, are members of, or linked to, the Federalist Society. Most of the self-styled "elves" who helped Linda Tripp's tapes find their way into Kenneth Starr's hands had links to the Society. And without the elves' handiwork plus the leaks, coaching, and sheer brainpower contributed by the extended Federalist network, Starr's investigation might never have gotten out of the blocks.

Tonight at the Mayflower you get a sense of just how powerful and far-reaching the Society is. There are stars from every corner of the Republican establishment in the room. From snippets of conversation, one concludes that they are joined not only at the ideological hip but by a collective hatred for President Clinton--perhaps more for standing in the way of their Revolution than for any moral or legal lapses. Members of Starr's old team like constitutional law advisor Ronald Rotunda (who counseled Starr that he could indict a sitting president) rub shoulders with old-timers from the Reagan administration--former Attorney General Edwin Meese, Solicitor General Charles Fried, and Civil Rights commissioner Linda Chavez--and with former Bush White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray. The room bulges with partners from among the most powerful law firms in the land: New York's venerable Sullivan & Cromwell; Chicago's Kirkland & Ellis (Staff's outfit); Washington's own Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (Gray's firm); and Los Angeles powerhouse Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher (its Washington office is home to Theodore Olson--whose contributions to Starr's efforts are colorfully documented in the Conason and Lyons excerpts referred to above).

And then there are the judges. No fewer than eight federal judges, most of whom are still active on the bench, will sit on panels or speak from the podium during this three day affair. Their discussions range from the technical to the deeply ideological. Former federal judge Robert Bork comments on the "inertia" and "weariness" he has observed in American liberalism--themes drawn from his recent book, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah." And Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas attacks the American Bar Association for being too socially conscious--advancing a slate of liberal positions "that go beyond representing the interests of lawyers as a profession"

The event has an intensely energetic feel. With the White House again within reach, the Mayflower is wrapped in a bubble of great expectations. And why not? The Society's mission is to advance a conservative agenda by moving the country's legal establishment to the fight, and they are succeeding. Despite eight years of a Democratic administration, the impact of the Reagan Revolution continues to reverberate in the nation's courts. (See "The Gipper's Constitution," December 1999.) And now one of the legal theories the Federalists are pushing could make regulation by federal agencies unconstitutional in some cases and--if carried to its logical extreme--be the Federalists' crowning achievement in their unspoken campaign to change the face of law and politics in America.

Who are they?

With 25,000 members plus scores of close affiliates nationwide--including Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, and University of Chicago brain-boxes Richard Epstein and Frank Easterbrook (also a federal appellate judge)--the Federalist Society is quite simply the best-organized, best-funded, and most effective legal network operating in this country. Its rank-and-file include conservative lawyers, law students, law professors, bureaucrats, activists, and judges. They meet at law schools and function rooms across the country to discuss and debate the finer points of legal theory and substance on panels that often include liberals--providing friction, stimulus, and the illusion of balance. What gets less attention, however, is that the Society is accomplishing in the courts what Republicans can't achieve politically. There is nothing like the Federalist Society on the left.

The Society's origins can...

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