Birth of the Federalist Society

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1982

The Institute for Educational Affairs, a group backed by the Olin, Earhart, JM, Scaife, and Smith Richardson foundations, provided a grant of $15,000 in 1982 to underwrite a legal conference on federalism put on by law students with an interest in conservative politics. Speakers at the forum, which took place at Yale, included future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and federal appeals judge Robert Bork. Using the successful conference as a springboard, several of the organizers—including future Senator and energy secretary Spencer Abraham and future Congressman David McIntosh—decided to form a national group with student-run local chapters, calling it the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy.

Strong interest among students, and additional foundation support, allowed the group to grow rapidly. By the 1990s the Federalist Society had become one of the most influential legal groups in the country. On appointments to the federal judiciary, its influence arguably surpassed even the American Bar Association.

In 2015, the Federalist Society had chapters at every accredited law school in the United States, 10,000 student members, 60,000 members of its Lawyers Division, and a budget of around $16 million. Inspired by its success, several philanthropists have tried to adapt its model to business schools (the Adam Smith Society), medical schools (the Benjamin Rush Society), and schools where students are trained in foreign policy (the Alexander Hamilton Society).