Conquerors of the Courts

Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post Magazine, January 2, 2019

Forget Trump’s Supreme Court picks. The Federalist Society’s impact on the law goes much deeper.

…. The conservative and libertarian society for law and public policy studies has reached an unprecedented peak of power and influence. Brett Kavanaugh, whose membership in the society dates to his Yale Law School days, has just been elevated to the Supreme Court; he is the second of President Trump’s appointees, following Neil Gorsuch, another justice closely associated with the society. They join Justice Clarence Thomas (who said last spring he’s “been a part of the Federalist Society now since meeting with them … in the 1980s”), Chief Justice John Roberts (listed as a member in 1997-98) and Justice Samuel Alito (a periodic speaker at society events). The newly solidified conservative majority on the court will inevitably decide more cases in line with the society’s ideals — which include checking federal power, protecting individual liberty and interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning. In practice, this could mean fewer regulations of the environment and health care, more businesses allowed to refuse service to customers on religious grounds, and denial of protections claimed by newly vocal classes of minorities, such as transgender people.

But having allies on the highest court of the land is just the top layer of the Federalist Society’s expanding sway. For one thing, there is the judicial nomination process itself. When Trump was campaigning in 2016, he made the shrewd and un­or­tho­dox move of publicizing a list of 11 conservative legal stars that he promised to draw from if he got a chance to pick a Supreme Court justice. Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, played a key role in suggesting the names, along with Trump’s future White House counsel, Don McGahn (also a society member), and the conservative Heritage Foundation. The list was expanded twice to include Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and others. Leo took a leave from his job at the Federalist Society to advise the White House on the confirmation process for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh — reprising a role he played for the George W. Bush White House in putting Roberts and Alito on the court.

The next most important segment of the judiciary — the federal appeals courts — is also filling up with Federalist Society members: Twenty-five of the 30 appeals court judges Trump has appointed are or were members of the society ….