They say that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. If that's true then the annual Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention is Washington's Oscars, at least for lawyers.
The Federalist Society for Law and Policy Studies—for those who haven't yet gotten Hillary Clinton's memo on the vast right-wing conspiracy—is simply a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It was founded in 1982 on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to the Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.
The Society seeks both to promote an awareness of these principles and to further their application through its activities—but explicitly does not take positions on legal issues or engage in political advocacy.
This year's Convention came on the heels of one of the worst elections for Republicans—the party most members align with—in decades. As a coincidental but fitting reminder to President Bush, Karl Rove (last year's keynote speaker), and the rest of the "big government conservative" administration, the Convention's theme was "limited government."
Despite the ascendancy of San Francisco socialism (and Lou Dobbs populism), the Federalists arrived in good spirits and the organizers put together a program that showed the Society to be loaded for bear. Knowing that the cause of liberty and rule of law is a long-term commitment, the Society has created a conservative intellectual network that extends to all levels of the legal community, and the network did not disappoint, on the dais or in the audience. Star-studded panels featured discussions of such hot-button issues as America's role in promoting democracy abroad, net neutrality, executive power in wartime, Wal-Mart, judicial independence, and the role of government in defining our culture.
Over 20 U.S. Circuit judges were in attendance—about 10% of the federal appellate judiciary—and government officials of all kinds jostled to be put on the robust schedule. The Solicitor General, Paul D. Clement, opened proceedings, and the parade of notable speechmakers included outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter—who joked that Sen. Chuck Schumer's suggestion that Specter be nominated to the Supreme Court was "the only good idea he's had in a decade"—Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Vice President Dick Cheney presented a typically straight-shooting defense of our Iraq policy as the Sixth Annual Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture, and Senator John McCain received polite but underwhelming applause after a very generous introduction from former Solicitor General Ted Olson. (McCain's speech made the right noises about limited government, but the membership could not seem to look past his regulation-expanding voting record.) Even just-elected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finagled a few minutes' speaking time at the highlight of the three-day session, the Annual Dinner.
The Dinner honored Antonin Scalia's 20 years on the Supreme Court and featured a keynote address by Justice Samuel Alito. It was this event which most approximated the hoopla and ceremony of the Oscars. In what can only be characterized as the Sound of Music moment of the night—which began with an invocation by Rev. Scalia and the Pledge of Allegiance led by Maj. Scalia—Justice Scalia was accompanied to the stage by his nine-strong brood, standing in order of age.
It was the understated Alito who had the line of the night, however, in commenting on President Reagan's commendation of the Federalist Society for "changing the culture of American law schools." (Law schools and the legal profession are dominated by an orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society and is taught simultaneously with—and as if it were—the law.) "President Reagan, ever the optimist," Alito quipped, "obviously confused the entrenchment of the legal academy with that of Communism."
In the end, the Federalists departed to their corners of the country—and the Beltway—reenergized for battle with the forces of judicial activism, political correctness, and legal positivism. Despite the richly deserved GOP setback, the battle to return and instill a government of limited and enumerated powers, as envisioned in the Constitution, continues on the legal front.
Ironically, the mood—and marching orders—at the end of the Convention can best be summarized by the words of Ted Kennedy at a slightly different Convention in 1980: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer and "Dispatch from Purple America" columnist who expected the Webb-Allen Virginia Senate race to go on a few more months. He is a card-carrying member of the Federalist Society.