The Liberal Riposte

The Liberal Riposte

Liberal groups are also concentrating on influencing the next generation of legal scholars.


Imitation is the highest form of flattery. But liberal groups who want to counter the Federalist Society have no wish to flatter; they hope to engage liberal law students in a broad battle against the conservative legal movement.

On July 30 a cast of heavy hitters kicked off the American Constitution Society (, which grew out of an effort at Georgetown Law School to establish a networking and intellectual base for centrists and progressives. Speaking to loud cheers and standing ovations at Georgetown were former US Attorney General Janet Reno, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Elaine Jones, former judge Abner Mikva, Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe and former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Judge Alex Kozinski's ideological adversary on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, flew in from Los Angeles. Since an article appeared about the group in the New York Times in May, the number of law schools with students and professors hoping to open chapters has gone from twelve to eighty. The chapters will begin by sponsoring forums and debates, and lawyers' chapters are set to follow in metropolitan areas.

"One can always puzzle over the timing–where have we been for the past ten years?" said Chris Edley, a law professor at Harvard who is on the board of advisers. Former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo has also agreed to be on the board. Cuomo says he sees the group as a counterforce to make sure the Constitution is interpreted in a "reasonable" way. "Once you put that much weight on that side of the boat, you better put weight on the other side of the boat," he says. "We're the weight on the other side of the boat. We need to right the boat and keep it even."

Also during the summer, fifty-eight professors and lawyers met in Berkeley to form the tentatively named Equal Justice Society (, which will sponsor discussions on how to protect civil rights. Eva Paterson, the group's founder, who directs the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, said she realized the necessity of a coherent response to the right after giving a speech at a convention of black federal judges. "Judges came flying forward," she said. "They said, 'Could you just bring us some theories? We sit there in our chambers and don't have any theories.'" The problem, she admits, is that liberalism is more fractured politically and more complicated judicially; being opposed to government intervention is easier than the messy business of creating government action. The first national conference will be held October 12-13 at Harvard Law School. The host will be Professor Charles Ogletree.

A third organization, the New York-based Institute for Democracy Studies (, also plans to establish student chapters this fall "to do detailed research on the conservative legal movement" at New York University, CUNY and Columbia. The chapter at Columbia will be headed by Professor Jack Greenberg, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who helped litigate Brown v. Board of Education.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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