Organization Spotlight: The Federalist Society

Jenna Adamson ‘19
Guest Columnist

Questioning presuppositions, engaging with inconsistency, and searching for truth—that’s the essence of debate and what first drew me to the Federalist Society. I heard about the UVa chapter’s events while growing up in Charlottesville and was impressed by the organization’s dedication to testing the value of ideas by hosting public debates. Since entering UVa Law, I’ve learned that the Federalist Society is more than a debate society. It rests on principles that represent the bedrock of our constitutional system, and its members’ shared belief in those principles encourages the formation of enduring professional and personal bonds.

When I arrived at UVa Law, I quickly became involved in the Federalist Society by serving on the 1L Committee and attending as many events as possible. One particularly memorable event was entitled “Where is Feminism Headed?” Karin Agness, founder of the Network of Enlightened Women, a group for conservative college women, appeared on a panel that included Gail Deady, a Legal Fellow at the ACLU of Virginia. Professor Emeritus Lillian BeVier, UVa’s first tenured female law professor, moderated the panel. It might have appeared an unlikely event for an organization whose membership is often stereotyped as exclusively male. And yet, it was precisely the kind of event that has made the Federalist Society successful and influential. During the event, Karin Agness and Gail Deady engaged in an increasingly heated exchange that revealed divergent visions of the policies necessary to empower women—but a shared goal of promoting female economic and political opportunity. Indeed, the panel provided a lesson in the importance of opening the door to dialogue, especially when two sides appear ideologically irreconcilable.

As vice president for speakers during my second year of law school, I strove to carry on FedSoc’s tradition of providing a forum for rigorous debate. I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the Society’s founding principles, however, until halfway through 2L year. The Federalist Society is founded on the principles that “the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.” My study of American history and political theory during college had already shaped my agreement with the first two propositions, but taking Judge Amul Thapar’s and Professor BeVier’s January term course on Justice Clarence Thomas’ jurisprudence represented my first real opportunity to reflect on the role of judges, originalism, stare decisis, and other jurisprudential topics.

Only by reasoning through Justice Thomas’ opinions and, later, studying administrative law and reading Justice Scalia’s essays in Scalia Speaks, did I come to see the relationship between the Federalist Society’s third founding principle and the first two. James Madison (FedSoc’s mascot) alludes to the first principle in his essay on property: “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses.” Federalist No. 51, also written by Madison, connects the first and second principles: “In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department (branch of government) should have a will of its own . . . .” The separation of powers is essential to preventing the “accumulation” of all legislative, executive, and judicial power “in the same hands,” which constitutes “the very definition of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 47 (Madison). But what’s to prevent such a concentration of power? This is where the third principle comes in. Paraphrasing Justice Thomas’ arguments in his Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association[1] and Michigan v. EPA[2] concurrences, the judicial power vested in the judiciary by Article III of the Constitution requires a judge to exercise independent judgment, free of personal biases and “human will.” This proper exercise of judicial power—saying what the law is, not what it should be—prevents the judiciary from usurping legislative power by using judicial decrees to make policy. Additionally, when courts exercise this independent judgment, rather than surrendering it through Chevron and Seminole Rock deference to administrative agencies, they act as a bulwark against accumulation of executive, legislative, and judicial power in the executive branch. Thus, the judiciary’s adherence to its constitutional role supports the separation of powers, which in turn protects liberty. I hope that opportunities, such as our Originalism 101 event, will enable the current class of 1Ls to learn much earlier than I did what it means for the judiciary “to say what the law is” and why it matters.

A shared passion for the Federalist Society’s founding principles sustains a strong professional network that promotes mentorship and friendship. UVa FedSoc members and alums want to invest in fellow FedSoc-ers from the moment they step on Grounds, as my own experience demonstrates. One former UVa FedSoc member (class of 2016) helped me navigate course selection for my second 1L semester; another (class of 2012) met for coffee to guide my 1L summer job search; a third (class of 1994) offered crucial advice about my 2L summer job search and clerkship application strategy. All three women have become mentors and friends, who inspire me to share my experience with the UVa FedSoc students who follow me. The exceptional enthusiasm of 2L and 3L members to participate in our chapter Mentorship Program indicates that I am far from the only FedSoc member who, having benefitted from the UVa FedSoc network, wants to reinvest in our new members.

Engagement with the national network provides additional opportunities. The Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention brings together lawyers in government, Big Law, public interest, academia, and the judiciary. Attendance at the convention may provide the occasion to meet someone who could write an important recommendation or sit across an interview table in the not too distant future. The Federalist Society Student Symposium offers the chance to hear exceptional speakers from across the political spectrum debate current legal and constitutional issues, and then to rehearse those debates with fellow law students from across the country. Those law students will become colleagues, collaborators, friends, and supervisors who could one day promote pursuit of a new opportunity at a firm or a move into a new job.

Of course, any explanation of my love for the Federalist Society and our UVa Law chapter must recognize our Law School’s special community. FedSoc chapters at other top law schools do not always experience the willingness of other organizations to cosponsor events and the respect from students and faculty that our chapter enjoys. One of the reasons I ran for FedSoc president was that I believed our chapter could do a better job of strengthening our chapter community and emboldening our members to articulate the importance of the principles of individual liberty, separation of powers, and the rule of law. We hope these are principles upon which all lawyers can agree, but we are grateful for a community eager and willing to debate their significance and how we, as a society and a profession, may achieve or defeat them.

[1] 575 U.S.        (2014)

[2] 576 U.S.        (2015)