The Yale Law School and Federalist Society Experience 2003-2006

A follow-up on yesterday's Fed Soc presidential election post

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I posted yesterday about my experience running for Yale Law School Federalist Society president against Sen. Josh Hawley. This has sparked many interesting conversations, including on what it actually meant to be in the group and why I joined—including as someone who has never been a registered Republican and is currently a registered Democrat. Also, as a (non-US born) woman. So I thought I would color in the lines a bit, in part because I believe this history provides a small piece of the puzzle of how we got where we got politically as a country.

I arrived at Yale Law School with socially liberal views, and economic views that are best described as idiosyncratic. On the latter front, I basically believed that government should intervene when there was a true collective action problem, and I had a fairly high bar for the amount of evidence required. Today, I am in some ways even more socially liberal than then, mainly in the sense of having gained deeper knowledge of gender and racial issues. I am also more economically liberal in the sense of being willing more quickly to accept that something is a collective action problem. This is an oversimplified summary but should give some insights as to my general framework.

Some of the Yale Law faculty during my time as a student did not provide, shall we say, the most hospitable environment for discussing a variety of ideas and perspectives in the classroom. For example, my civil procedure professor made repeated critical jokes about Republicans and then-President George W. Bush during class. The irony was that I actually agreed with said professor about the substance of his criticisms, which were focused on national security, Guantanamo, etc. But his nonchalant attitude also made me realize that this professor was potentially unlikely to welcome any views that did not match his own.

I had long-standing experience with teachers who would punish students for their viewpoints, especially during my time in public high school in Switzerland. The history teacher I had for five years was extremely ideological, handed out only materials written by himself and never a textbook, and grades depended on the level at which students were able to parrot back his views successfully. I guess at least I didn't have the history teacher at the school who taught students that the Berlin Wall was built so that people from the West wouldn't flee to the East!

I had concluded that disagreeing with some educators would not help much of anything and frequently kept my views to myself in the classroom. Even so, I got myself screamed at by a YLS constitutional law professor the spring of my 1L year in the main hallway of the school for suggesting the "wrong" topic for my final paper. I had proposed comparing and contrasting some aspects of history presented in John Ely's Democracy and Distrust with those in (my now VC co-blogger) Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty. The professor told me no and yelled at me: "I consider Randy Barnett a friend, but I refuse to read his book or any paper about his book. All he does is impose his right-wing ideology on his theory of constitutional interpretation." Well, then.

The Federalist Society provided a forum where a diversity of ideas could be discussed. I disagreed with a good number of those ideas then and probably disagree even more with them now. And by no means do I believe every idea that exists out there is worth discussing–the conspiracy theories and other nonsense that have entered the American mainstream (and some that were always there) are not worthy of debate. But the intellectual environment of the YLS classroom was too restrictive, and the Federalist Society provided an alternative.

How the Republican party came to be dominated by populist demagogues is a complex question, but I don't think that what conservative, libertarian, or simply idiosyncratic thinkers encountered in their classrooms throughout lower and higher education has been helpful at times. Yale Law School did not make people like Sen. Hawley what they are. But it contributed to the creation of subgroups that became their own, increasingly unreachable bubbles.

On a more positive note, while the Republican Party has largely gone off the rails, the vast majority of judges–many of them affiliated with the Federalist Society at some point in their careers–have held against Trump in his attempts to steal the election. This is true even of the judges appointed by President Trump himself. Whatever one might think of individuals affiliated with the Federalist Society, the ones who have been put on the bench haven't simply fallen in line with the worst aspects of Trumpism.

During non-pandemic times, I regularly speak to Federalist Society student chapters across the country, and I occasionally attend faculty events. Nobody in the Federalist Society has ever told me what I could or couldn't say, even when I have held views that I am certain the vast majority of its leadership disagrees with. In particular, some of my scholarship has taken a feminist turn that some of them likely place between the strange and the incorrect (or worse).

Federalist Society chapters vary in who they attract, and each chapter is run with significant autonomy. Some are undoubtedly dominated by bowtie types or by bros. Others by nerds who want to explore ideas. Many Fed Soc members are centrists of various sorts who abhor the MAGA crowd as much as liberals do. After the pandemic, students can see for themselves what the events at their particular school are like. Who knows, it might not be what they expect.

NEXT: Biden Will Nominate Merrick Garland As Attorney General

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  1. >Yale
    Looks like someone wasn’t good enough to be a Harvard trained lawyer.

  2. It is 3 p.m. on Wednesday. The offspring of the efforts of people like Sen. Hawley are now a force of rebellion against the United States.

    Anyone who is watching the Capitol at this time is seeing the result of those individuals like the President, Senators and House members and their supporters who have instigated a mob attack at the very seat of democracy in the United States.

    I invite those regular responders on this site who argue that the election was stolen to accept their responsibility for this insurrection. They are complicit in what is happening and need to acknowledge it.

    1. No, the people who stole the election are responsible.

    2. The phrase you want is “mostly peaceful protest”

    3. And were you similarly alarmed by actual destructive riots, which included real murders and real attempts to burn down occupied buildings?

      People who alarmed by this (near as I can tell) truly peaceful demonstration, and who took the BLM and Antifa destructive riots in stride, are TDS victims through and through. They are contemptible.

      Then there are quotes like this:

      while the Republican Party has largely gone off the rails

      with zero mention of the Democrats having gone much further off the rails, with open Marxists and ignorant Democratic Socialists leading Democrat polls for months, and openly Marxist professors pounding their propaganda.

      No, sorry, you and your lot are hypocritical losers of the sorriest sort.

      You statist clowns from both sides think all that is needed is more government. When government doesn’t work, drink more of it! You are the kind of idiots who think they can lose weight be eating more of what gained 100 pounds, or cure poison by drinking more of it.

      Fuck off, slaver.

      1. No, no. You don’t get to carry water for Trump for years and then pretend to be libertarian.

  3. “For example, my civil procedure professor made repeated critical jokes about Republicans and then-President George W. Bush during class.”
    Ooooo, can we guess? Owen Fiss?

  4. ” the Berlin Wall was built so that people from the West wouldn’t flee to the East!”

    Except it was….

    The problem was that there were two economies and residents of West Berlin were going over to East Berlin for cheap meals (etc.) and enough people had relatives living in East Berlin to borrow the required residency permits for purchases.

    At one point, the Soviets actually considered *selling* East Germany to the west, but that didn’t work out so well.

    So they built the wall — both to keep their economically-valuable people from fleeing to the West, and to keep their resources from flowing to the West, i.e. keeping people from going *INTO* East Berlin and buying them.

  5. ” For example, my civil procedure professor made repeated critical jokes about Republicans and then-President George W. Bush during class.”

    Say it ain’t so!

    “And by no means do I believe every idea that exists out there is worth discussing–the conspiracy theories and other nonsense that have entered the American mainstream (and some that were always there) are not worthy of debate. ”

    Remember when it was a “conspiracy theory” that the Covid virus escaped from one of the Chinese Viral Research labs in Wuhan? And not worthy of discussion?

  6. You’re just a beard to this White, male, movement conservative blog, Professor. You deserve better playmates and a better playground. Leave this site to the gun nuts, superstitious clingers, disaffected incels, and roundly bigoted Republicans.

    1. You first, Arthur.

      1. I enjoy slapping these clingers around. It is worthwhile work.

  7. Thoughtful and interesting post. Glad you wrote it. Gave me an insight that I, based on my limited experience (ie, at UCLA Law), did not expect.

  8. Today, I am in some ways even more socially liberal than then, mainly in the sense of having gained deeper knowledge of gender and racial issues.

    War on women! Systemic racism! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!

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