Conservative Lawyers Conference: a Job Fair for the Trump Administration?

At the Federalist Society’s annual convention, several potential Supreme Court justices and lots of job seekers.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito addressing the Federalist Society's 2016 national convention in Washington DC.AP Photo/Cliff Owen

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Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the dissipation of conservative antipathy toward Donald Trump now that he’s been elected president could be found this week in the halls of the tony Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

There, the Federalist Society, a prominent conservative legal organization, held its national convention. The organization had been lukewarm if not outright hostile to Trump during the campaign. But this week, it was already showing signs that a normalization of his politics is well underway, as conservative attorneys flocked to the event, some in the hopes of making the right connections to land a plum job in the new administration.

This year’s legal convention was dedicated to the memory of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. The subject matter was already some what somber, but the conference schedule also seemed to reflect a coming gloom about the future of the conservative Supreme Court, having been drawn up long before Election Day, when a Hillary Clinton victory still seemed virtually inevitable. Many in the organization had opposed Trump, including the group’s co-founder, Steven Calabresi, one of a number of prominent legal scholars who signed on to a letter October from “Originalists Against Trump.” They wrote:

Many Americans still support Trump in the belief that he will protect the Constitution. We understand that belief, but we do not share it. Trump’s long record of statements and conduct, in his campaign and in his business career, have shown him indifferent or hostile to the Constitution’s basic features—including a government of limited powers, an independent judiciary, religious liberty, freedom of speech, and due process of law.

But when the conference opened Thursday morning with a speech from Justice Samuel Alito, the conservative justice spoke to a packed house. Registration for the event, according to organizers, soared immensely after the election, and it was reflected in the endless lunch lines. Hans von Spakovsky, a member of the Federal Election Commission under President George W. Bush and a regular at Federalist Society events, told me when I noted the uptick in attendance that I had made a mistake. “You are under the impression that you are attending the 2016 Federalist Society national lawyers convention,” he deadpanned. “This is the 2016 Trump administration job fair.” Von Spakovsky said he had not been contacted by anyone from the Trump team looking for a new FEC chair, but Trump probably owes him a word of thanks: He was one of the architects of the voter suppression campaign that began in the Bush administration and ultimately made it harder to vote in the recent election in some places and which some critics blame for Trump’s victory.

Rumors were flying that Calabresi was in New York this week to consult with the Trump team on Supreme Court nominations, and there was talk of a Trump Tower sighting of Leo Leonard, the Federalist Society’s executive vice president. The rumors couldn’t be confirmed, but there was a clear sense at the conference that whatever happened before the election would be put in the past, and that the group was eager to have a role in the new Republican administration.

Also on hand for the event was another group that generated intense speculation: people on Trump’s shortlist for the Supreme Court. Among them was Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, an acerbic conservative who’s mocked Trump on Twitter but who nonetheless made his shortlist. I asked a bow-tied Willett whether he’d heard from Trump since the election. “I think I’ll exercise some judicial discretion and make a graceful exit,” he demurred, walking away to make a call.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen, 47, was more forthcoming. On the shortlist even though her judicial experience encompasses but a single year in her current role, she said that she had not heard from the Trump team. Did she want a promotion to the high court? “I’m just a week out from having won my retention election,” she said diplomatically. “I’m really just focused on the next two years.”

Meanwhile, if things go well for the lawyers at the convention, perhaps they’ll be holding their 2017 event at the Trump International.


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