Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin summarize their new book The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back From Liberals:
. . . The history of the Federalist Society is a story of how disaffection, bold ideas, commitment to principle, and enlightened institution-building have created a significant conservative shift in the legal, policy, and political landscape of America over the past 30 years. The society reports that more than 45,000 lawyers and law students are involved in its various activities, with approximately 13,000 dues-paying members. With a national budget of about $10-million, in 2010 its 75 lawyer chapters sponsored nearly 300 events for more than 25,000 lawyers, and the society sponsored 1,145 events at law schools for more than 70,000 students, professors, and others. Through conferences, debates, publications, litigation, education, and by holding key positions in government and the judiciary, the society has changed law and policy in areas like property rights, access to courts, affirmative action, privacy rights including abortion and same-sex marriage, and the influence of international law on the domestic legal system.
The Federalist Society's membership includes many brilliant and sincere theorists who raise important and interesting issues. On the other hand, the society's critics say, its overall impact is reactionary. By glorifying private property, demonizing government intervention (particularly at the federal level), insisting that originalism is the only legitimate method of constitutional interpretation, embracing American exceptionalism as a reason to remain apart from global governance, and pushing related policies, these critics say, the society advocates a form of social Darwinism that has been discredited by mainstream American legal thought since the 1930s.
Membership includes economic conservatives, social conservatives, Christian conservatives, and libertarians, many of whom disagree with one another on significant issues, but who cooperate in advancing a broad conservative agenda. They generally support individual rights and a free market, and prefer states' rights to action by the federal government.
Members have held senior policy making positions in the Reagan, George H.W., and George W. Bush administrations; have a commanding presence on the federal bench; and, as private lawyers, advocates in public-interest law firms, and government lawyers, challenge laws that are anathema to their worldview. The dockets of the federal and state courts (including the Supreme Court) are brimming with test cases brought or defended by Federalist Society members to challenge government regulation of the economy; roll back affirmative action; invalidate laws providing access to the courts by aggrieved workers, consumers, and environmentalists; expand state support for religious institutions and programs; oppose marriage equality; increase statutory impediments to women's ability to obtain an abortion; and otherwise advance conservative ideas.
Academics associated with the Federalist Society have educated a new generation of conservative law students, played a role in the rise of openly conservative law schools like Pepperdine's and George Mason's, and succeeded in gaining respect and traction for conservative legal ideas. Those stem in large part from an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, exemplified by the jurisprudence of Justice Scalia. That view posits that to interpret the Constitution, one must search for the original meaning of its provisions. The argument is that the original meaning of words may be objectively determined by recourse to historical sources that reveal how the words were used at the time, and that the original meaning is the only legitimate method of interpreting the document. . . .
Jeffrey Rosen--president of the National Constitution Center, a law professor at George Washington University and the legal affairs editor of The New Republic--reviewed the book in The New York Times:
More than two decades ago, when I was a law student, I used to sneak into meetings of the conservative Federalist Society for lunchtime conversations about constitutional issues. Although neither conservative nor a Republican, I had libertarian leanings and appreciated the society’s openness to debating its political opponents. I felt slightly illicit in crossing ideological lines: once, when the dean spotted me leaving a meeting, I felt as if I’d been caught walking out of an X-rated movie. But the discussions themselves were always intellectually engaging, and my fellow law students seemed more interested in converging around a shared approach to interpreting the Constitution than in squabbling about partisan differences. . . .
“[E]very single federal judge” appointed by the two Presidents Bush “was either a member or approved by members of the society,” including four Supreme Court justices: Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. The Federalist Society model has been so successful that other organizations have adopted it — societies named after Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton and Adam Smith have been started to promote conservative and free market ideas in medical education, foreign policy and business school.
How was the society able to achieve this remarkable feat? According to the authors, by persuading the competing factions of the modern conservative movement to set aside their ideological differences and to converge around a constitutional methodology known as “originalism” — the idea that judges should interpret the Constitution as understood by its framers and ratifiers. . . .
In 2010, Steven Teles published a book convering much of the same ground: The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law.