A member of the conservative Federalist Society that is influential on Bush's judicial picks, Roberts is a widely respected lawyer. President Bush called him "one of best legal minds of his generation."
Everyone knows that, like all good Republican lawyers, John G. Roberts Jr. is a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative law and public policy organization where right-of-center types meet to denounce liberalism and angle for jobs in the Bush administration.
And practically everyone -- CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Legal Times and, just yesterday, The Washington Post -- has reported Roberts's membership as a fact. One liberal group opposed to Roberts's nomination, the Alliance for Justice, has noted it on its Web site.
But they are wrong. John Roberts is not, in fact, a member of the Federalist Society, and he says he never has been.
"He has no recollection of ever being a member," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman who contacted reporters to correct the mistake yesterday.
She said that Roberts recalls speaking at Federalist Society forums (as have lawyers and legal scholars of various political stripes). But he has apparently never paid the $50 annual fee that would make him a full-fledged member. His disclosure forms submitted in connection with his 2003 nomination to the D.C. Circuit make no mention of it.
How this urban legend got started is not clear. The issue probably got clouded in part because the Federalist Society's membership is confidential; individual members must decide whether or not to acknowledge their affiliation.
Even some conservatives found the story plausible.
"I'm shocked that he is not," said Richard A. Samp, chief counsel of the right-of-center Washington Legal Foundation.
As the TV ad war continues, the Roberts story has taken a new twist. There is growing focus today on an organization that Roberts claims he cannot remember if he joined or not: the Federalist Society. Roberts and the White House say the nominee has no recollection about his possible membership.
But yesterday, the Washington Post reported that it had obtained a 1997-98 Federalist Society leadership directory listing Roberts, then a partner in a private law firm, as being a steering committee member in the group's Washington chapter.
On Monday, Roberts declined to say why he was listed in the directory when asked by a reporter about the discrepancy during a morning get-acquainted meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
White House spokesperson Scott McClellan was asked about Roberts and the Federalist Society at the daily press briefing:
Q It was reported, as you know, that he was in the Federalist Society, which is an important legal group in the conservative -- on the conservative side. Then the White House said, no, it was not the case. And now it appears that he was part of the leadership group. What is the real story here?
MR. McCLELLAN: He has no memory of ever joining or paying dues to the Federalist Society. He has no recollection of that. He has participated in events and panel discussions. He's given speeches at Federalist Society forums. But he doesn't have any recollection of ever paying dues or joining the organization.
Q Isn't that kind of a simple thing to nail down, prior to now?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, David, he's answered this over the last few years the issue has come up, and he certainly has participated in some of the events that they've sponsored or that they've hosted. But he just doesn't have any memory of ever paying any dues to the organization.
So, just what is the Federalist Society and why is the administration and its nominee so circumspect [lying, spreading falsehoods,] about identifying with it?
It's an association of lawyers founded in 1982 that claims to be non-partisan, unbiased, and unpositioned on matters of policy. But a quick perusal of its website reflects its conservative orientation. It has special sections, subgroups, and publications committed to "watching" the American Bar Association (ABA) and non-governmental organizations (NGO). The latter is a pretty big task, which is why the Fed Society has joined hands with the equally "unbiased", "non-partisan" conservative organization, The American Enterprise Institute. It also sponsors a wide array of "practice groups" dedicated to studying and one would assume influencing certain specific legal and policy issues.
Fine. The executive branch and congressional branches or our government are conservative entities, dually elected by the people. So what's the big deal? Why wouldn't Roberts just admit to being a part of the group? Federal Society members are peppered throughout the administration, including the current nominee to be the Deputy Assistant Attorney General.
Perhaps because the organizations positions and activism are decidedly regressive and may not reflect the interests of everybody who helped elect their sponsors to positions of power. According to the Institute for Democratic Studies, the Federalist Society's
...literature has contained arguments for abolishing the Security and Exchange Commission, severely limiting the regulatory role of the Environmental Protection Agency, and rolling back gender equity provisions, voting rights law, and other foundations of federal civil rights law. In addition to presenting challenges to standard "wage-gap" statistics, Federalist Society publications have included articles criticizing the teaching of evolution and aspects of the foundational principle of separation of church and state.
Federalist Society associates were also heavily involved in torpedoing the nomination of Bill Lann Lee as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Clinton Administration. Their Civil Rights News bulletin quoted Clint Bolick as providing detailed information and source quesetions to the Senate Judicial Committee's Orin Hatch that proved critical in defeating Lee's nomination.
If the name Clint Bolick sounds familiar, it should. He dogged Clinton's administration and in particular its judicial nominations beginning with Lani Guinier, whom Bolick labeled a "quota queen."
And if any of this agenda or set of tactics sounds at all like any of the Constitution in Exile theology that's been surfacing at Republican legal and political gong shows, than you probably wouldn't be far off the mark. And one other thing. Robert Bork was instrumental in the Federalist Society's founding and is now affiliated with the Ava Marie School of Law in Michigan, which was established by conservative underworld financier and former Domino's Pizza mogul Tom Monaghan.
Conservatives have expended a lot of effort to try to tar Democrats with the liberal label and Democratic activists and supporters, Michael Moore and Moveon.org, who's positions and activities are far more mainstream and pluralistic than the Constitition in Exile band of regressives represented at the Federalist Society and by its corporate and religious elitist sponsors.
Considering the scope of their agenda, their role in the administration and conservative thought generally, and given the administration's apparent trepidation about the group, it's high past time for Democrats to bring the Federalist Society and its radically regressive agenda and bedmates out of the closet.