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Over 800 lawyers, judges, clerks and law students crowded auditoriums at Georgetown University Monday night to attend the first session of the American Constitution Society (ACS), a newly-founded national association of liberal and progressive legal professionals.
The society—which is intended as a counterweight to the influential conservative Federalist Society—includes as directors prominent Harvard Law School (HLS) professors Christopher F. Edley and Laurence H. Tribe, Tyler professor of constitutional law.
Members of ACS plan to open a chapter at HLS this fall.
Speakers at the kickoff event, the first meeting since the national society was founded this spring, included Tribe, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Elaine Jones of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and Walter Dellinger, the former acting solicitor general. Although the speakers spoke on a range of topics, they all stressed the need to develop a forum for lawyers to debate liberal and progressive ideas.
Organizers called the gathering a success as it generated an overflow turnout—speeches were simulcast to 500 attendees who couldn’t fit in the main auditorium.
In an interview, Tribe cited as an impetus for the society the success conservative forums have had in promoting their viewpoints within the legal profession.
“[Conservative] groups like the Federalist Society, and think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation have had enormous success in helping to place their members as law clerks, within the executive branch or on the bench,” Tribe said.
As a result, Tribe said he believes that the conservative viewpoint is now over-represented in the judiciary—to the detriment of liberal concerns which have been squeezed out by a judiciary that favors a more conservative, literalistic interpretation of law and the constitution.
“Ever since the late 70’s…there has been a focus on utility and efficiency, as concerns like human dignity or the intrinsic value of unspoiled wilderness fall through the cracks,” Tribe said.
Members of ACS said they hope the new group will give the Left a wider voice.
“The idea is to change the terms of the debate,” said David Halperin, the society’s acting executive director and a former White House speechwriter.
“[Conservatives] have been good lawyers, but also good rhetoricians and politicians. They have made it mainstream to espouse views that used to be considered extreme,” Halperin said.
The society is also aimed to counter what Tribe called the prevailing image of liberal or progressive legal scholars.
“There is an illusion that the analytical types on the Left are mush heads, and that we wear our hearts on our sleeves. There is nothing intrinsic about the world that should make this so,” Tribe said.
In order to change this image, as well as shift the national dialogue toward the left, ACS will try to capitalize on the strategy which it said brought the conservatives great success.
The liberal society will be loosely modeled on the Federalist society, which was founded in 1982 by four law school students—one from HLS—to battle “orthodox liberal ideology” which it said pervaded legal institutions.
The Federalist society formed chapters at law schools across the nation, sponsored speaker series and garnered financial support as it grew.
Now, liberals said that the Federalist Society’s power is manifested in the large number of President Bush’s nominees for judicial and executive branch positions.
Tribe and Halperin said that ACS hoped to emulate the Federalist Society’s success in creating a powerful network of legal professionals.
The executive director of the Federalist Society, Eugene B. Meyer, offered qualified support for the emergence of the rival group.
“To the extent that the group ends up having an emphasis on debate and discussion, that’s positive,” he said.
ACS grew out of the Madison Group, a liberal law society founded at Georgetown, founded by Professor Peter J. Rubin in 1999. Plans to take the group national crystallized this spring, as founders put in place a national structure and board of directors.
Rubin became the new president, and the group changed its name in response to concerns over the pro-slavery views of namesake James Madison.
This summer, ACS has focused on setting up its national office and planning for more than 20 local chapters this fall—including the one at HLS.
Assistant Professor Heather K. Gerken will be the faculty adviser for the HLS chapter. She said she is excited to get the chapter up and running, and to “rejuvenate” moderate liberals and progressives.
“It’s not enough for liberals to pat themselves on the back, and to say they are good liberals,” Gerken said.
“We want to expose them to the arguments, to have them forge their own ideas in the political sphere,” Gerken said.
Gerken said she hopes to draw on the speaker bureau being created by the national society, and to organize other events to promote debate.
Previously, she said, the Federalist Society has been the only such forum for debate on the intersection of law and politics at HLS.
Key to the success of the ACS chapter at HLS will be encompassing the spectrum of left-center and left-wing philosophies, according to Gerken.
“When the faculty is as liberal as it is, we end up breaking down into liberals and progressives. We hope to find common ground between both,” she said.
So far, interest has exceeded the fledgling chapter’s capacity, as Gerken said she has been flooded with e-mail from students.
“So far we’ve had more students than we know what to do with,” Gerken said.
—Staff Writer David H. Gellis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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