Nomination Stirs a Debate on Federalists' Sway

Straussians and Texans and Federalist – Oh My!


WASHINGTON, July 31 - "I am a member of the Federalist Society, and I do not know, quite frankly, what it stands for." The transcript does not say whether people in the Senate hearing room responded with disbelief. But that is how one person headed for a top job in the Justice Department, Viet D. Dinh, described his relationship with the society, a conservative legal group whose influence is the source of ever-swelling myth, mystery, insinuation, denial and debate. In a new Washington ritual, President Bush has repeatedly drawn from the Federalist Society for cabinet members, senior aides and judges. And perhaps to deflect what many conservatives call unfair attacks by liberals, the nominees have repeatedly claimed to know little about the group's beliefs. White House aides have worked hard to put distance between the society and John G. Roberts, the federal appeals judge Mr. Bush has nominated for the Supreme Court. They have even demanded corrections from newspapers that identified him as a member. Then an old directory surfaced last week, listing Judge Roberts as part of one of the group's steering committees. The White House spokesmen clung to their line; since Judge Roberts had not, apparently, written a $25 membership check, he was not a formal member. Who cares? Lots of people, it seems, because a fight over the influence of the Federalist Society is a proxy in the war over the federal judiciary and the Constitution itself. Remarkable in its growth and reach, the society was founded in 1982 by law students unhappy with what they saw as liberal dominance in law school faculties and the courts. It now claims 35,000 participants (some paying dues and some not) and has chapters in virtually every law school and in 60 cities. Part of the society's influence stems from its sponsorship of public debates, which hone and promote conservative points of view. But much of the influence, and most of the intrigue, flows from an informal social network, which members use to advance one another's causes and careers. Openly and behind the scenes, members have played prominent roles in the most pitched political battles in recent years, including the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the Florida recount fracas in 2000 that led to the election of Mr. Bush. The society takes few official positions. But to some liberal critics, the activism of its members conjures all they fear about the legal right, from the defense of states' rights and business interests to attacks on affirmative action, gay rights and abortion. One liberal blog,, called the group "the conservative cabal that is attacking America from within." Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, did not go that far in an interview last week. But he pointed to the society as a link between Judge Roberts and two Supreme Court justices many on the left abhor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Scalia was a faculty adviser to the society, and Justice Thomas has praised its work and spoken at its events.