The American Constitution Society had its coming-out party this weekend. Having weathered its birth and adolescence in political exile, the liberal legal network brought its annual conference to the historic Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., where 1,000 progressive law students, professors, lawyers, and judges spent two long days marveling at their swift rise to power—and puzzling over what to do with it.
The doors to legal and political influence are open to ACS now, as a spate of articles last year announced. After devoting the past eight years to constructing its career pipelines, ACS can finally delight as it all spills out into actual jobs for members. A panel of high-ranking Obama administration officials Friday night personified the new reality: Former ACS Executive Director Lisa Brown, now staff secretary to Obama, was joined by former board member Ron Klain, now Vice President Biden's chief of staff. ACS also claims the current or future heads of three important legal organs—the offices of Legal Policy and Legal Counsel and the Justice Department with Eric Holder—as well as numerous advisers and mentors to the president himself.
"Some of you are already a part of the administration. Many of you will be part of it," says Spencer Overton, another ACS board member and now deputy director of the Office of Legal Policy, looking out at the audience. "Please continue to be engaged. You really do sustain us."
In almost every particular, ACS has studiously followed the example of its own hero/foil: the Federalist Society. Founded in 1982, the Federalists grew to prominence during the Reagan years by identifying, recruiting, and appointing young conservative believers to the legal firmament. With a tight leadership cadre and by refusing to take positions likely to divide its membership, the society became, in the Bush era, what political scientist Steven Teles calls in his book, "the most vigorous, durable, and well-ordered organization to emerge from this rethinking of modern conservatism's political strategy." George W. Bush's fondness for the Federalist crew knew virtually no bounds, as he cheerfully staffed his administration with current and former members, from his attorney general, John Ashcroft, to his solicitor general, Ted Olson, to his Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff.
ACS, founded in the wake of Bush v. Gore, is structurally identical, with student chapters and lawyer chapters, periodic white papers, and innumerable speaking events—right down to the practice of including one ideological misfit on each panel in the interest of vigorous debate. (Organizationally, there's still a lot of catching up to do—the Federalist Society raised $11 million in 2007, while the ACS pulled in $3 million; although its take has risen precipitously in recent years, and the media attention won't hurt.)
ACS has drawn strength from the shenanigans of the Bush-era players. Or as ACS Executive Director Caroline Frederickson spoke of the opposition at her law school in a speech to the full group: "Every time you turn around and there it was, Darth Vader."
But if the conservative establishment was once the ACS's greatest recruiting tool, enthusiasm over the Obama administration has taken its place, and excitement is running high. Students and young lawyers packed the conference rooms, looking for a piece of the action. Georgetown Law student Dallas Hammer had been a member of the Federalist Society and switched his affiliation just this year. Lauren Smith, a student at the University of Michigan, says she's keeping her eye out for a job with the administration, and ACS membership was a nice check in her favor.
"I'm just here for the networking," says a prim Stanford student, sitting next to a bow-tied classmate, over a Caesar salad lunch. Ladder-climbing. It isn't just for young Federalists anymore.
Of course, membership in ACS isn't the punched ticket to success that association with the Federalist Society was in Bush's day—since being a member of such a conservative group carried some stigma on liberal college campuses, it was also a surer indicator of one's ideological bona fides. In the Bush administration, it paid off: In 2005, the New York Times reported that "15 of the 41 appeals court judges confirmed under Mr. Bush have identified themselves as members of the group."
"I wouldn't want to be a part of a group that wants to do that," Smith told me. The group wants to create the Federalist-style pipeline but remains leery of being seen as a liberal cabal.
And once they get into office, ACS means to hold its brethren accountable. This weekend was more than just an Obama pep rally; the panel of White House defectors faced some tough questions over the new administration's continued use of military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees and slow progress on gay rights. Brown and Klain could only respond with the standard insider line: The president cares about these issues very much. We're doing the best we can.