Geoff McGovern’s comment on my last post brings to mind a conversation I had a few years ago in graduate school. As part of my dissertation work, I attended two of the law student annual meetings of the Federalist Society. I was impressed with the level of networking happening right before my eyes. I was also impressed with the level of debate that went on and how obvious ideological divisions became visible among the various panelists (and even more so when talking with the students who attended the functions). My primary interest at the time was how conservative libertarians were framing property rights issues in legal arguments. Upon returning from the first of those meetings, one that was held at Harvard, I met with my dissertation advisor to discuss what I had seen and to go over my notes of some of the presentations. At some point, he said something about the way interest groups frame discussions, and I paused in puzzlement. “Well,” said I, “I don’t think it’s an interest group.” My advisor tilted his head, gave me a very direct look, and said, “Are you sure?” This was his way of asking indirectly whether I’d checked the literature on this matter – I had not, but comprehensive exams weren’t far away and I felt reasonably certain that what I was seeing in my research was not an organization that fit that particular literature. It seemed somehow a hybrid of sorts.
In fact, it seems the leadership has fairly consciously chosen to step away from those particular activities and to focus, instead, on the networking and scholarly debate that is at the heart of the organization. Indeed, it seems to be at the heart of professional legal practice. The focus of attention, then, is on the structure of the legal profession, the development of ideas that shape the arguments made in the course of legal practice and legal education, and the culture of the profession itself. This means that some of the more obvious conceptual tools available in the study of judicial politics are not going to work very well in understanding the Federalist Society or its influence.
And that will be the topic of my next post.