Slate writer won’t accept that there’s no right-wing legal boogeyman

Judge William Pryor
Judge William Pryor, U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, moderates a panel discussion during the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) Cliff Owen/AP

Slate writer won’t accept that there’s no right-wing legal boogeyman

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The Left’s conspiracy theories about the conservative Federalist Society legal-interest organization are bizarrely obsessive. Witness how unmoored a lefty journalist looks even when trying, admirably, to be fair.

Mark Joseph Stern, a senior writer for Slate, is one of those who seems utterly convinced that conservative judges are inherently wicked and that the Federalist Society is the engine of an uber-nefarious plot. In column after column, Stern fulminates against everything related to conservative jurisprudence, as when he insists there is “lawless (and sometimes lethal) depravity that is infecting lower courts stacked with Trump judges.”


So it was that Bill Pryor, chief judge of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, included Stern as the target of an aside when Pryor served as the opening speaker for the Federalist Society’s 40th-anniversary national convention last month. The whole speech poked gentle fun at the whole notion that the society is a secretive cabal determined to “subvert democracy with dark money.” According to blowhard Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the society’s mission is to promote “demolition theories that will help them … deconstruct our legal system.” Pryor noted that Stern had added to the blather by describing the society as a “radicalization machine.”

Pryor’s lighthearted speech was received by some 2,000 in attendance in the spirit it was given. All assembled understood that there can be nothing sinister about like-minded conservative lawyers networking with each other while providing open forums for debate where liberal luminaries are also warmly welcomed.

Stern took umbrage at being “mocked,” but he at least had the decency to call and ask Pryor for an interview and then to agree to publish a transcript thereof, rather than tendentiously cherry-pick quotes to “gotcha” effect against the judge. Alas, the content of some of Stern’s questions, and almost the entirety of his lengthy introduction to the interview, evince the same fevered obsessions that Pryor rightly skewered in the first place.

For example, as if the Federalist Society as a whole is responsible for the behavior of two of its members (from among many thousands), he asked Pryor if the society should “repudiate and disavow” two lawyers who “advised President Trump on his efforts to reject the results of the 2020 election.”

Yeesh. By that standard, all stage actors would have been expected to affirmatively disavow the thespian John Wilkes Booth after Abe Lincoln’s assassination.

What is most galling about Stern’s article, though, is the combination of its breathless fearmongering with its utter lack of context and self-awareness. His introduction misdescribes “dark money slush funds” that “pay for the character assassination of Joe Biden’s nominees” and, by implication (made explicit in Stern’s other columns), a whole parade of other horrors while promoting — gasp! — conservative lawyers for judicial nominations.

Funny how approximately nobody can remember a single example of liberal judges’ supposedly assassinated character, while Stern seems unconcerned with the extremely memorable assaults on the character of conservative judges ranging from Robert Bork to Clarence Thomas to Sam Alito (whose wife cried at insinuations he is a racist) to Brett Kavanaugh.

Stern is aghast that conservative donors rather secretively funnel $1.6 billion through groups partly controlled by Federalist Society Co-Chairman Leonard Leo. But a web search produces no ready examples of him worrying about the $1.7 billion in dark money funneled through left-wing groups networked through the Arabella Advisors consultancy. Not to mention, of course, all the other leftist dark money originating from international billionaire George Soros.

And amid his complaints about the Federalist Society’s informal advisory function for Republican judicial nominees, Stern seems unperturbed by the decades of the decidedly left-wing American Bar Association acting as a virtual cartel. Not only has the ABA effectively nixed numerous Republican nominees for the mere sin of being too conservative (“lack of judicial temperament,” in ABA-speak), but it literally controls accreditation of law schools and, effectively, admittance to the legal bar itself. Whereas the Federalist Society doesn’t lobby, file lawsuits, or take formal issue stances, the ABA actively and officially advocates liberal causes.

Stern sees evil run only one way, from the Right, and he imagines evil comes from that direction even when it’s nonexistent.

That last was Pryor’s larger point in both his speech and in his interview with Stern. Pryor said Stern sees “top-down, centrally planned” action by a Federalist Society cabal when in reality, most of it effectively comes organically through informal “bottom-up” voluntary action. Pryor said the Left and Right think differently “about how the world works,” so people like Stern assume there must be puppet masters when in fact, all that is occurring is what free market thinkers call “spontaneous order.”

On judicial nominations, I have used reportorial skills on occasion to quietly listen in on conference calls of allies of the Federalist Society (the Society itself sponsors no such activity) and of a left-wing group. The conservative calls are more in the mode of polite information sharing, with some people discussing their own reasonable tactics but no central, unified direction. The left-wing Patriotic Millionaires, though, had a command-and-control aspect, spoke profanely, and were openly cutthroat. (Their goal is to “make this an unbelievably painful process … [and] extract any flesh and bone.”)

That sort of vicious cynicism is certainly not how the Federalist Society works, and it’s not how Judge Pryor works. Neither one is involved with a radicalization regime. What Stern fears when he sees the conservative legal movement is really the best of civil society in action.


© 2022 Washington Examiner

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