Overview:

The Federalist Society is a conservative legal organization with vast influence over US judicial outcomes.

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The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, or the Federalist Society for short, is a conservative legal organization. It was originally founded in 1982 by law school students at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Chicago’s law school programs. Their goal was to challenge the perceived liberal bias of American law schools, and they instead advocated for an “Originalist” or “Textualist” interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Legal professionals who are Originalists believe that the Constitution must be interpreted as the Founders intended. This generally means that the Constitution should be interpreted as written, with no leeway or middle ground for political, technological, economic, or social changes.

What is the organization’s mission?

The Federalist Society’s goal is to build the conservative legal movement’s power. The organization has evolved from a law school discussion group to one of the most important conservative organizations in American society. After a 1982 conference held by the group on returning power to the states, law schools across the country began their own chapters. Today, Republicans use the organization’s shortlist of judges to make nomination decisions for not only the Supreme Court, but for lower courts in both the federal and state judicial systems. The Federalist Society’s alumni include famous law professors, Congressional members, and important government officials in Washington. The group got its start with a small grant from the Olin Foundation, but today, it receives millions of dollars in funding from a variety of sources. These sources are sometimes shielded by shell entities, such as DonorsTrust, an organization created with the purpose of providing the Federalist Society with funds without revealing the names and roles of donors.

What is the organization’s budget?

The Federalist Society has an annual budget of about $20 million, with significant donations coming from right-wing organizations such as Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Koch Industries, and other conservative trusts and individuals.

How does the organization build power?

The Federalist Society builds power through the growth of its network. Backing from the Federalist Society can almost single handedly jumpstart a conservative lawyer’s career as a judge. So what, precisely, do the group’s members look for in potential members of the bench? The Federalist Society generally looks for potential judges who are extremely socially conservative on social issues, and who will rule favorably to Christians in religious cases.

What has the organization’s impact been?

A study published by Nancy Schere and Banks Miller in 2008 found that Federalist Society members are much more conservative than nonmembers, and tend to rule in a more conservative manner throughout their careers. The Federalist Society has continually denied this. Leonard Leo, a former executive for the group, argued that the Constitution was not ideological, and that Originalism was not about solely arriving at conservative outcomes. The results tell a different story, as the Federalist Society has increasingly been the source of Supreme Court picks for Republican Presidents. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett all have Federalist Society ties. This session, the court overturned Roe and ended the federal right to an abortion and pushed Christianity in public schools. The religious right’s win streak in the court system is in large part due to the Federalist Society’s influence. For many today, religious liberty is not a cherished freedom,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. told the Federalist Society, in a planned address. “It pains me to say this, but, in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”

There is an argument that the influence of the Federalist Society may be waning over time. Originally, Republican Presidents used the Federalist Society in part to make sure that nominees didn’t ideologically drift after their confirmation. Republicans didn’t want to nominate a conservative judge just to find them acquiescing to liberal opinions later on. After all, most judges face no political accountability after confirmation. The Federalist Society solved this problem by providing Republican Presidents with a steady stream of reliable conservative ideologues. But as polarization in the U.S. continues to increase, conservative judges will likely be resistant to ideological drift even without the pressure of conservative legal organizations. Still, the Federalist Society retains immense influence in contemporary American politics, and their ideological conservatism has had a huge impact on the outcomes of judicial cases across the country

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.