In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, some progressive news outlets—such as The American Independent—have taken aim at a DC-based organization called the Federalist Society for purportedly trying to “abolish abortion rights.” What is the Federalist Society, and what do they do?
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies was founded in 1982 and is a network of approximately 60,000 conservative and libertarian lawyers, law students, scholars, and other individuals who oppose judicial activism: the organization believes the duty of the judiciary is to say what the law is, not what is should be.
Through its student chapters at law schools, the Federalist Society, sponsors debates that vet ideas from all across the political spectrum: they do not prime the debates or advocate specific outcomes. Rather the Federalist Society is committed to the principles of the American founding: that the federal government exists to preserve individual and group freedoms, including intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.
The Society is a membership organization comprised of a Student Division, a Lawyers Division and a Faculty Division. It provides opportunities for effective participation in the public policy process and involves itself more actively in local, state and national affairs through the involvement of its members.
President Ronald Reagan commended the work of the Federalist Society within law schools, stating that,“The Federalist Society is changing the culture of our nation’s law schools. [They] are returning the values and concepts of law as our founders understood them to scholarly dialogue, and through that dialogue, to our legal institutions.”
The Federalist Society is unique in carrying out its mission, as it does not take positions on legal or policy issues, nor does it engage in other forms of political advocacy. The Society is simply about the contest of ideas within the constitutional framework of the separation of powers. To this end, it focuses on fostering debate and discussion.
United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once stated that the Federalist Society “has played an important part in sparking dialogue between lawyers and judges, and even at times amongst themselves . . . by assiduously avoiding the temptation to take positions, or to lobby and engage in political advocacy.”
This semester I have had the opportunity to participate in the Baylor in Washington Semester Program and intern at the Federalist Society. I have observed the extent to which they encourage panelists from both sides of the aisle to engage in civil discourse; and I have seen firsthand how their approach tends to generate new ideas on various fraught subjects.
The Federalist Society welcomes people from all over the political spectrum to attend their panels and their annual National Lawyers Convention, and they offer free visual and audio materials to expand people’s knowledge of the American constitutional framework. Former Clinton White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum is consistently in attendance at the National Lawyers Convention hosted by the Federalist Society each fall. The Federalist Society is staffed by attorneys and individuals dedicated to fostering a greater appreciation for the role of separation of powers, federalism, limited constitutional government and the rule of law in protecting our freedoms and traditions.
Returning now to where I began: is it a goal the Federalist Society to “abolish abortion rights”? Emphatically not. Though particular members of the society are independently active in numerous areas of public policy and law, and may seek particular outcomes, the society itself has no position on abortion per se, or on any other controversial public issue. Its positions rather relate to the meaning and purposes of law and adjudication in a constitutional regime such as ours. The society has a constitutional, not a policy, focus.
Of course, to the extent that any particular right may be grounded in dubious constitutional interpretations stemming from judicial activism rather than restraint, the Federalist Society would be opposed to the grounding of such a right—not opposed to the right per se, but to the unconstitutional grounds on which its security is made to depend.