The Volokh Conspiracy

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Farewell to the Mayflower

Next year, the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention will (likely) be at the Washington Hilton.


The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. opened in 1925. It is iconic. Presidents and world leaders have stayed there. It hosted many inaugural balls. And for the past four decades, the Mayflower has been the home of the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention. Attending the annual meeting at the Mayflower is like a pilgrimage for conservative lawyers. I've attended every convention since I was a 1L in 2006. I still remember with awe my first visit. I walked through the gilded doors, across the marble lobby, into the bustling hallway, and sat down in the grand ballroom. I was awe-struck by the classic decor in the room, and even more impressed by the luminaries sitting in our midst.

In November 2009, shortly after I launched my blog, I live-blogged the Convention. I wrote up summaries of sessions, posted short clips of the programming to YouTube, and tweeted highlights. (You can see the entries here.) At the time, FedSoc did not have any social media team, and none of the sessions were live-streamed. For those who like a throwback, here is a clip from 2009, which captures my youthful humor, and the Mayflower's grandeur:

But perhaps the most significant moment of the 2009 Convention occurred in the grand hallway. I described it in my 2009 book, Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare:

The convention draws prominent academics, politicians, and judges from across the ideological spectrum to discuss and debate the key legal issues of the day. As is often the case at such conventions, some panels are more interesting than others. During lulls, attendants frequently recess to the grand hallway in the Mayflower to catch up with old friends, argue about the most recent Supreme Court case, or brainstorm and strategize. November 12, 2009, was just such a day. At 10:15 AM, a panel began on "Bailouts and Government as Insurer of Last Resort." Though certainly an interesting topic, a number of already-fatigued Federalists made their way out into the cavernous hallway. I joined them. Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation—the same Heritage Foundation that had first advanced the individual mandate two decades earlier—was talking about the pending health care bill along with Nelson Lund, my former professor at George Mason University School of Law; Andrew Grossman, a former classmate; and a few others. At this point the law still had not cleared the Senate, but conservatives were already getting worried. Gaziano, brainstorming ways to challenge the law, asked the group if there were any possible constitutional infirmities in the law. I chimed in that all mandates in the past had been imposed by the states—such as automobile insurance—rather than the federal government. . . .

Gaziano said that he wanted to write a report for Congress that would give constitutional arguments as to why the law was invalid. He approached me and said something to the effect of, "Josh, I would love for a young and bright lawyer such as yourself to help write this report with me." I knew what that flattery meant in D.C.-speak: prominent lawyers frequently ask young lawyers to ghostwrite articles for them. In truth, I was not opposed to that idea—and in fact I had done it before—but I recognized that for someone who was clerking, writing a white paper about a pending piece of litigation that would soon be litigated in the federal courts was inappropriate. I respectfully declined. A few moments later, Georgetown University Law Center professor Randy Barnett joined the conversation.

At a Federalist Society convention, Barnett is a rock star. He had just finished a debate. Tall and lean, with a piercing glance and sly grin, Barnett radiates confidence and warmth. Making his way through a throng of admirers, he always takes time to talk to inquisitive students. In addition to writing some of the most influential books and articles on originalism, constitutional theory, and the structures of liberty, Barnett had argued Gonzales v. Raich before the Supreme Court in 2005. That case, which Barnett lost, held that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana that never leaves a farm. More importantly, Barnett was a leading expert on the scope of federal power and constitutional law. In hindsight, Barnett's entry into our conversation was providential. Gaziano later told me that he was "looking for someone with real knowledge in the area," someone who had "gravitas," to help make the case against Obamacare. Barnett was perhaps the ideal candidate. This conversation, though it started out innocently enough, would change the fate of constitutional law. Gaziano asked Barnett, "Hey, Randy, do you have any thoughts about the constitutionality of the health care law?" Randy replied, "You know, I really haven't give it much thought."

Gaziano, tenacious as ever, kept at it and asked if Barnett wanted to write a report and "do something about the law." Barnett agreed, but said, "You will have to get someone to do the first draft." Gaziano coaxed Barnett further. "Stop by my office this week. We can talk more about this case. And I have a young associate who can help write this." Reading between the lines, I got the impression that Heritage would write the report and Barnett would put his imprimatur on it. Intrigued, Barnett flashed his trademark smirk and agreed.

All of this began in the halls of the Mayflower. FedSoc is often described as this top-down organization that dictates our legal culture. To the contrary, the most important facet of FedSoc is the natural interactions that organically arise in the hallways.

The Mayflower has countless other memories. One year, I moved my chair near an electric outlet in the State Room so I could charge my laptop. Justice Scalia walked into the room to promote his new book with Brian Garner. And before I had a chance to unplug my computer, Justice Scalia tripped on the cable. In a moment, I saw my life flash before my eyes. I thought I would be excommunicated from the Society, and banished from the legal profession. Thankfully, Scalia caught his footing, muttered something under his breath, and walked to the stage. Another year, a friend had recorded Justice Alito's remarks at a dinner that did not permit recordings. Foolishly, I linked to the video on my blog. In the halls of the Mayflower, I was promptly told to call chambers, and was asked to remove the video. I tried to explain that I could delete the link on my blog, but couldn't take down someone else's video. No excuses. Thankfully, I was able to track down my friend, and all was well. This year, I publicly challenged Will Baude and Michael McConnell to a debate on Section 3! Oh, the Mayflower memories–mostly of me making mischief.

Alas, the fortieth National Lawyers Convention may be the final gathering at the Mayflower. So I've been told, starting next year, our shindig will (likely) move about a mile up Connecticut Avenue to the Washington Hilton. I think everyone would agree that the Hilton lacks the charm of the Mayflower. The walls and floors are sterile. It looks like a hospital. But more importantly, the Hilton lacks the memories. The Hilton also has really bad vibes. In March 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Reagan and James Brady outside the Washington Hilton. The hotel subsequently built a drive-through canopy structure allowing the President to exit safely from his limo within its shelter. The Barnett/Blackman casebook includes a photo of the assassination and hotel, right before an excerpt from Printz v. United States, which declared unconstitutional provisions of the Brady Act. (On a personal note, I also have Marriot Bonvoy Lifetime Platinum, so I lack status at the Hilton.)

Why, then, is the Convention moving? This industrial hotel is much larger than the classy Mayflower. More people can attend panels, more rooms can be blocked off, and the ballroom can fit five-hundred more attendees for the Scalia dinner. Indeed, the banquet this year was moved from Union Station to the Hilton's ballroom.

If this is indeed the last convention at the Mayflower, I will miss it dearly. Of course I can stay at the Mayflower–it's not going anywhere. Well, I am inclined not to, since they have cut many amenities, including the concierge lounge. (I was told it will never reopen due to "business reasons.") But without FedSoc, the Mayflower will not be the same.

As a coda to the video I recorded back in 2009, here is me signing off in 2023 (with much longer hair and a noteworthy photobomber):

And a walk through the Grand Hallway, one more time.