The Federalist Society, part 2: The Debate Club

First you get the money, then you get the power. But FIRST first you get the law students. This week we're exploring the tentacles of the Federalist Society, and how a so-called debate club pulls levers across government, the legal profession, and academia, to achieve its conservative ideological goals.

A podcast where we dissect and analyze the Supreme Court cases that have torn apart our country, like award season is tearing apart my household

0:00:00.9 Speaker 1: You blame this system for what you are instead of yourself.

0:00:05.7 Speaker 2: You want to revenge. If Rome wasn't destroyed today, you need help, you need money. A lot of it. And you'll stop at nothing to get it.


0:00:19.7 Leon: Hey everyone, this is Leon from Fiasco and Prologue Projects. On this episode of 5-4, Peter, Rhiannon and Michael are back with the second installment of their series on the Federalist Society. Last week, you heard about where FedSoc came from and what it has become. This week you're gonna hear about how it works, how it's structured, how it attracts members, and how it wields it's influence to wage a multi-front war within our legal system. This is 5-4, a podcast about how much the Supreme Court and the Federalist Society suck.

0:00:54.1 Peter: Welcome to 5-4, where we dissect and analyze the Supreme Court cases that have torn apart our country, like award season is tearing apart in my household. I'm Peter.

0:01:03.9 Michael: Oh.

0:01:05.6 Peter: And I'm here with Michael.

0:01:06.0 Michael: So it's like Barbenheimer, the big divide? Are you the Oppenheimer guy in Leon wants Barbie to win?

0:01:13.2 Peter: It's not that, it's that every award season, there's a competition for the best television in the household because I wanna watch the NFL playoffs, and my wife wants to watch whatever the Critics Choice Awards, are you kidding me?

0:01:27.6 Rhiannon: Introduce me, I need to come into this. Introduce me.

0:01:31.4 Peter: And I'm here with Rhiannon too.

0:01:34.0 Rhiannon: Hi. Peter, you're wrong, I'm on the wife's side.

0:01:38.6 Peter: Now, a major impediment to me, to my side of this is that a wife hangs out on the couch for much of the day, which means.

0:01:49.1 Michael: She's already there.

0:01:50.3 Peter: When the time comes, she has this entrenched position physically that puts me at a massive disadvantage, frankly.

0:01:58.7 Rhiannon: She has the geographical advantage.

0:02:00.7 Peter: Yeah. This is not something I do often, but there have been times when she'll just get up to go make herself some dinner or something, and I will just rapidly take over the couch.

0:02:09.7 Rhiannon: You gotta get in there.

0:02:10.4 Michael: I was gonna say, you gotta order seamless, and when it gets there, just leave it on the counter and you sit down next to her and you start eating, and when she goes to get it, then you're like, "Boom, I'm in charge."

0:02:20.8 Peter: Yeah. It's not the tactic to get her off the couch that's hard, it's the conversation that happens immediately afterwards.

0:02:31.2 Peter: Alright. This is episode two of our series about the Federalist Society. In episode one, we walked you through the history of the organization, how they rose from a group of plucky young nerds to being an organization capable of sort of seizing the Supreme Court and much of the federal judiciary. So if episode one was the story of how the organization grew from a seed into a carnivorous flower, this episode is about how that flower traps, kills and digests small rodents.

0:03:07.0 Michael: That's right.

0:03:07.4 Rhiannon: Specialized acid thing.

0:03:09.3 Peter: The rodents are like voting rights and things like that.

0:03:12.6 Michael: I was gonna say, in this analogy, the rodents are the new deal.

0:03:16.5 Peter: Yeah. So back in 1982, the founders of the Federalist Society proposed an organization composed of three groups: Students, professors, and the lawyers. The goal was very simple, they wanted to create networks of conservatives at law schools and among professional lawyers, including within the judiciary itself, which the founders of course, viewed as dominated by liberals. To this day, the organization abides more or less by that tripartite structure. On campuses, it recruits students and provides them with resources and career opportunities if they join, it provides professors and academics with channels for jobs and funding for research, and it connects professional lawyers with a broad network of conservative thought, and as for judges, it serves as both a resource and a check. It provides a network of like-minded thinkers for judges to rely on, and it utilizes that same network to discipline judges who fall out of line. So we're gonna talk a bit about how this all works and how it connects to right-wing dark money, and where Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society's most powerful figure, factors into all of this.

0:04:33.8 Rhiannon: Yeah, Leonard Leo is specialized acid system within the flower. Right?

0:04:38.4 Peter: That's right.

0:04:39.3 Michael: Capable of melting a mouse's bone.

0:04:44.8 Rhiannon: So let's talk about the first kind of building block of this tripartite structure of the Federalist Society. Think of the Federalist Society as not just a network that operationalizes conservative thought in the law, but also a recruitment organization for people into the conservative legal movement. The most effective recruitment for these goals happens at the law school level. So to some extent, the Federalist Society is a household name now in 2023, 2024 because of what was revealed about their role in picking the Trump judges, right? But to get to that powerful of a position, this organization was built up over 30 years from the law school level to create this system of lawyers and judges that we now think of as making up the Federalist Society.

0:05:31.4 Rhiannon: But at the law school level, they're not just getting all ready conservative law students to enter the organization, they are also growing, expanding the conservative legal movement by appealing to law students who identify as libertarian and centrist students as well. And really the effectiveness, the popularity of their Student Chapters at law schools is a result of two things. First, the Federalist Society's organization on law school campuses. By organization I mean in the administrative sense, the executive organization of the Student Chapter. And then secondly, it's the network that the Federalist Society Student Chapters open up to law students, that leads to careers and professional connections that law students are looking for.

0:06:17.2 Rhiannon: The Federalist Society currently has about 200 Student Chapters across the country. And in this first aspect of the organization, the way this organization works. This is a well-built, smoothly operating and highly funded organization at the individual Student Chapter level at law schools. We talked in episode one of the series about the big funding that Federalist Society got from the Olin Foundation, from the Scaife Foundation and others at the time of the organization's founding, and that money gives a Student Chapter the ability to host better events than other student organizations on a law school campus, or at the very least, events that look better, right? Each of us, the three of us have our own experience with this, and we also interviewed two people about their time at Harvard Law and how the Federalist Society operated on campus when they were in law school, and every one of us has really similar memories of their initial assessment of the Federalist Society in law school.

0:07:21.1 Rhiannon: This is one of, if not the most organized student organization at my law school campus. They obviously have more money than other student organizations because they always have good food at their events, and they're clearly a serious organization because they additionally have better speakers at their events, including the best professors, not only at the law school where you are, and these are professors who are speaking from across the political spectrum, not just conservatives, but law professors at other law schools who are writing about new and interesting areas of the law and arguments and constitutional interpretation, they're also bringing high-level conservative lawyers to speak on your campus, as well as judges.

0:08:05.2 Peter: Yeah, not uncommon to see like big name federal judges show up to Federalist Society event on campus.

0:08:11.2 Rhiannon: Exactly. These are events that are happening in the middle o