The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Were it not for the pandemic, last weekend would have been the Federalist Society's annual student symposium at the University of Michigan. But in an admirably quick adaptation to the circumstances, the Federalist Society instead hosted the entire symposium online via videoconferencing. One key event of the symposium is the awarding of the Joseph Story Award (previously the Paul M Bator Award), which is given annually to "a young academic (40 and under) who has demonstrated excellence in legal scholarship, a commitment to teaching, a concern for students, and who has made a significant public impact in a manner that advances the rule of law in a free society."
This year's winner was my friend and co-author, and our co-conspirator, Stephen Sachs of Duke. Steve's award marks a four-year streak of awarding this prize (and the Bator award before it) to members of the Volokh Conspiracy, and brings the total number of Conspiracy awards up to eleven. (I'm not aware of a law school that has more than three.)
You can read/watch the presentation of the award here. My favorite part of his remarks were his comments about the Federalist Society itself:
Third, I'm honored to receive this award from the Federalist Society, which similarly combines a commitment to intellectual discovery with real-world accomplishment.
I wanted to become a lawyer, partly from my dad's example, but also because, as a lawyer, you could go into a library, do some research, make an argument—and the hope is, at the end of it, the world would be different. This is the ideal that Hamilton described in the very first paragraph of The Federalist No. 1—that societies might be capable of "establishing good government from reflection and choice," and not "forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
I don't know of any other organization, in America or elsewhere, whose members are simultaneously at the forefront of serious scholarship and at the forefront of government in quite the same way.
Finally, I'm particularly honored to receive this award because it shows something very special about FedSoc, something that's unfortunately in diminishing supply today.
When I was a student, I wasn't sure about joining FedSoc. I was still figuring out what I thought about things; I would have never attended one of these symposia; and I would never have expected to receive an award like this one.
But one of FedSoc's true advantages, and the point I want to leave you with tonight, is that this openness, this willingness to bring people in to think things through and get to better answers, is its extraordinary strength.
By current standards, FedSoc's politics are wildly diverse: they run the whole gamut from conservative to libertarian! That might not seem like much. But what it means is that, on any one issue, you can find someone in FedSoc who passionately but respectfully disagrees with you.
That's true for controversial issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage or presidential candidates.
And it's true for even more controversial issues, like economic liberty or industrial policy or the unitary executive or whether Erie Railroad v. Tompkins should be overruled. (Which it should.)
FedSoc has made the choice, and it's a deliberate choice, not to make endorsements or write manifestos or establish litmus tests. There are no Thirty-Nine Articles which every one of you had to sign. Instead, there are just broad commitments—including a commitment to discussion, to reasoning together, as the way to get things right.
Now, FedSoc isn't just a debating society: there really are positions that most people in it share. And these ideas matter.
The point of FedSoc is not just to have a good time talking (though we do).
And it's not just to find people you agree with (though that can be a comfort).
It's actually to reach the truth, talking it over with those with whom you share enough to make your disagreements meaningful.
In an age when disagreement is often treated like disloyalty, and when curiosity is often confused with cowardice, a commitment to open discussion and truth is like water in the desert.