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What Is The Federalist Society And How Does It Affect Supreme Court Picks?


President Trump says he already has a short list - 25 names of potential Supreme Court nominees.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a very excellent list of great, talented, highly educated, highly intelligent, hopefully tremendous people. I think the list is very outstanding.

KELLY: Now, this list includes judges who have been handpicked by a group of conservative lawyers called the Federalist Society. And to learn more about who that group is, we turn now to Amanda Hollis-Brusky. She is a political scientist at Pomona College and author of the book "Ideas With Consequences: The Federalist Society And The Conservative Counterrevolution." Professor Hollis-Brusky, welcome.

AMANDA HOLLIS-BRUSKY: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. So the Federalist Society, as I just said, it's a group of conservative lawyers who want judges to interpret the law as it was written. Start by telling me, where did this group begin?

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: The Federal Society (ph) grows up alongside the Reagan Revolution. You have a small group of law students at elite law schools who are conservative and libertarian-leaning. They see that conservative ideas and ideology are politically ascendant. And yet in their elite law schools, they don't see those ideas represented in their curriculum. And so they decide that they need to found an organization, a club that would bring conservative and libertarian voices, scholars and perspectives into their law schools.

KELLY: And interestingly, you write one of their earliest faculty mentors that they brought in was Antonin Scalia.

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: A lot of Scalia's ideas in writing about originalism and original meaning became deeply ingrained into the kind of founding consciousness of the Federal Society. And the organization really grew up as a organization that promoted Antonin Scalia's conservative judicial philosophy.

KELLY: So how does this play out if we set this against the list that President Trump says? He's got 25 names. He's going to find his next Supreme Court nominee from that list. What role did the Federalist Society play in shaping that list?

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: I would say one very direct role is that Leonard Leo, who was the executive vice president of the Federal Society, took leave from the society to construct that list for President Trump. And so that list is in many ways a product of the Federal Society and its network.

KELLY: Leo in interviews has said the president called and asked him for a list, asked him to come up with this.

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: Yeah. And I think one strong indicator of Federal Society influence here - if you think about Trump's other Cabinet nominees, his secretary nominees, he tends to gravitate towards nepotism, people who have been loyal, faithful. They're his friends. When you look at his list of judges and the people that he's put on the bench, it's been entirely controlled by the Federal Society. And that is an indicator of the pull that the Federal Society has within that space, that Trump wouldn't dare nominate someone who was just a family friend.

KELLY: Do we have any way of knowing how they may be seeking to exert influence on the pick, on who might rise to the top of this list of 25 names?

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: I think Leo, as a gatekeeper, has a lot of power and influence right now. And so as they're walking through this list of nominees, they're of course taking into consideration politics, which senators are more or less likely to vote for particular nominees. So there's broader political considerations here. But Trump has said and the Federal Society has said as much - their focus is on getting verifiably conservative judges on the court and young judges and justices.

KELLY: So that they can exert influence for longer?

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: Yeah. In the founding period, when the life tenure for judges was developed, the average Supreme Court justice served eight years, like a two-term president. And now we have Supreme Court justices serving 20, 30. And if Trump has his way, he wants this judge to be on the bench for 40 or 45 years.

KELLY: That's Pomona College professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky. She is author of the book Ideas With Consequences: The Federalist Society And The Conservative Counterrevolution." Thanks very much.

HOLLIS-BRUSKY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.