The Federalist Society and movement conservatism: how a fractious coalition on the right is changing constitutional law and the way we talk and think about it Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Riehl, Jonathan
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Communication
  • This study is the first in-depth examination of the Federalist Society, the nation’s preeminent organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers. Founded by a few enterprising young college friends in the early days of the Reagan administration, its participants now number 40,000 lawyers, policymakers, judges, and law students. The Society functions as a forum for debate, intellectual exchange, and engagement between the factions on the right as well as their liberal opponents—hence my use of rhetorical theory. I explore how Federalists have promoted conservative legal theories of interpretation, such as originalism and textualism, and also how have also fueled the broader project of the American right to unmake the liberal consensus on a wide range of legal and social issues from Affirmative Action and race to foreign policy. By serving as a forum for the generation and incubation of conservative legal thought, the Federalist Society has provided an invaluable intellectual proving ground; and with chapters now active at all accredited law schools in the country, the Society is widening its reach and providing a home for aspiring conservative lawyers, whether they seek to go into private practice, public service, or the judiciary. This is the Federalist “pipeline”: an everexpanding network that spreads conservative ideas. It is the engine that drives the boldest Federalist goal: changing legal culture. iii I examine how Federalist conservatives are making headway with this project— “getting a seat at the table,” as former Attorney General Edwin Meese put it. My research draws on over 100 interviews conducted with the Federalist rank-and-file as well as conservative leaders, including a number of federal judges associated with the Society. In addition to providing a critical history of the group, I consider a number of conservative legal theories, often the subject of Federalist Society events and publications. I focus in particular on several key individuals: Justice Antonin Scalia and his modes of textual interpretation; Attorney General Meese and “originalism”; Professor Richard Epstein and libertarianism; former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and national sovereignty. I conclude that the Federalists deserve commendation for their efforts to engage intellectually with their opponents and with the many factions on the right. I also conclude that the left needs to counter the Federalist project with a similarly vigorous and open strategy—and organization—of their own.
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  • In Copyright
  • Cox, J. Robert
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Open access

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