Two Supreme Court justices and nine judges on President-elect Donald Trump’s list of potential high court picks are among more than 1,000 people expected at a gathering of conservative lawyers that has suddenly turned into an impromptu job fair for spots in the new administration.
The Federalist Society’s national lawyers’ convention begins Thursday in Washington as a tribute to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an early supporter of the group and a hero to many of its 40,000 members.
But since Trump’s surprising victory in last week’s presidential race, the meeting has turned into a public audition of sorts for nearly half of the list of 21 people that Trump put forward earlier in the year as prospective Supreme Court nominees.
“The mood has changed. Everyone is going to be thinking, ‘Maybe someone here is going to be filling Justice Scalia’s shoes,’ ” said Abbe Gluck, a Yale Law professor who is not a member of the group but who will take part in the conference.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, familiar figures at these annual meetings, also will speak on Thursday.
The Federalist Society got its start on college campuses when Ronald Reagan was in the White House as a way to counter what its members saw as liberal domination of the nation’s law-school faculties. Its influence was pronounced during the presidency of George W. Bush, when its leaders helped rally support for Senate confirmation of Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. The group was so successful that it spawned copycat liberal organizations.
Speaking at a Federalist Society event in the Bush years was akin to an out-of-town preview of a Broadway show for conservative lawyers who were looking for administration jobs or judgeships, author Mark Tushnet has written.
Over the past eight years, the group provided a forum for opponents of President Barack Obama’s court choices and policies, although the Federalist Society itself does not endorse candidates or take policy positions. Some of its leaders backed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to act on Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat. That political strategy paid unexpected and huge dividends for conservatives with Trump’s election.
The society’s star again appears to be on the rise. “Anytime there’s a major shift in the power of government, it’s an enormous opportunity for what is probably the collection of the smartest, most talented and most publicly minded lawyers in the country to roll up their sleeves and help advance the cause of constitutional government,” said Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society’s executive vice president.
Leo met with Trump in New York on Wednesday and said afterward that Trump has yet to pare down his long list of names of Supreme Court hopefuls.
Among those candidates are nine who will take part in panel discussions in the next few days: state supreme court justices Allison Eid of Colorado, Joan Larsen of Michigan, David Stras of Minnesota and Don Willett of Texas, and federal appellate judges Steven Colloton, Thomas Hardiman, Raymond Kethledge, William Pryor and Diane Sykes.
The group says 90 percent of its money comes from individuals and foundations, the rest from corporations. Charles and David Koch, Google and Microsoft are among donors who gave $100,000 or more, according to the society’s annual report for 2015. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and her husband, George, gave between $50,000 and $100,000. George Conway is a New York lawyer and Federalist Society member.
When Scalia and Thomas were criticized for speaking at private dinners hosted by Charles Koch, the court said that travel and lodging expenses were paid not by Koch but by the Federalist Society.
The close ties between the group and federal judges have frustrated Democratic officials and liberal interest groups. During the Bush years, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois complained that membership in the Federalist Society was “the secret handshake” of Bush court nominees.
Nan Aron, the president of Alliance for Justice, said the Federalist Society “promotes a way of looking at the law which upholds the rights of the powerful and the wealthy.” Aron said it is “regrettable that so many nominees on Trump’s list are going to attend Federalist Society events.”
Yet a conservative legal scholar who has been critical of Trump said the group’s involvement in identifying candidates for judgeships and other jobs in the new administration is not something to fear.
“In fact, if the Federalist Society does play a role in identifying the president-elect’s nominees, that could be comforting to some who have reservations about Donald Trump’s administration, because such a role would suggest, at least in this area, continuity with longstanding, mainstream Republican practice,” University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said in an email.
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