American democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law are the righteous causes of our times, and the nation’s legal profession is obligated to support them. But with the acquiescence of the larger conservative legal movement, these pillars of our system of governance are increasingly in peril. The dangers will only grow should Donald Trump be returned to the White House next November.
Recent reporting about plans for a second Trump presidency are frightening. He would stock his administration with partisan loyalists committed to fast-tracking his agenda and sidestepping — if not circumventing altogether — existing laws and long-established legal norms. This would include appointing to high public office political appointees to rubber-stamp his plans to investigate and exact retribution against his political opponents; make federal public servants removable at will by the president himself; and invoke special powers to take unilateral action on First Amendment-protected activities, criminal justice, elections, immigration and more.
We have seen him try this before, though fortunately he was thwarted — he would say “betrayed”— by executive branch lawyers and by judges who refused to go along with his more draconian and often unlawful policies and his effort to remain in office after being cast out by voters. But should Mr. Trump return to the White House, he will arrive with a coterie of lawyers and advisers who, like him, are determined not to be thwarted again.
The Federalist Society, long the standard-bearer for the conservative legal movement, has failed to respond in this period of crisis.
That is why we need an organization of conservative lawyers committed to the foundational constitutional principles we once all agreed upon: the primacy of American democracy, the sanctity of the Constitution and the rule of law, the independence of the courts, the inviolability of elections and mutual support among those tasked with the solemn responsibility of enforcing the laws of the United States. This new organization must step up, speak out and defend these ideals.
Leaders of the legal profession should be asking themselves, “What role did we play in creating this ongoing legal emergency?” But so far, there has been no such post-mortem reflection, and none appears on the horizon. Many lawyers who served in the last administration — and many on the outside who occupy positions of influence within the conservative legal community — have instead stood largely silent, assenting to the recent assaults on America’s fragile democracy.
We were members of the Federalist Society or followed the organization early in our careers. Created in response to left-liberal domination of the courts, it served a principled role, connecting young lawyers with one another and with career opportunities, promoting constitutional scholarship and ultimately providing candidates for the federal bench and Supreme Court.
But the Federalist Society has conspicuously declined to speak out against the constitutional and other legal excesses of Mr. Trump and his administration. Most notably, it has failed to reckon with his effort to overturn the last presidential election and his continued denial that he lost that election. When White House lawyers are inventing cockamamie theories to stop the peaceful transition of power and copping pleas to avoid jail time, it’s clear we in the legal profession have come to a crisis point.
We are thankful that there were lawyers in the Trump administration who opted to resign or be fired rather than advance his flagrantly unconstitutional schemes. They should be lauded.
But these exceptions were notably few and far between. More alarming is the growing crowd of grifters, frauds and con men willing to subvert the Constitution and long-established constitutional principles for the whims of political expediency. The actions of these conservative Republican lawyers are increasingly becoming the new normal. For a group of lawyers sworn to uphold the Constitution, this is an indictment of the nation’s legal profession. Any legal movement that could foment such a constitutional abdication and attract a sufficient number of lawyers willing to advocate its unlawful causes is ripe for a major reckoning.
We must rebuild a conservative legal movement that supports and defends American democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law and that incentivizes and promotes those lawyers who are prepared to do the same. To that end, we have formed a nonprofit organization, the Society for the Rule of Law Institute, to bring sanity back to conservative lawyering and jurisprudence.
There is a need and demand for this new legal movement that the legal profession can readily meet. Pro-democracy, pro-rule-of-law lawyers who populate our law school campuses, law firms and the courts decry what is happening in our profession. They deserve an outlet to productively channel these sentiments.
Originally formed in 2018 as Checks & Balances during what we took to be the height of Mr. Trump’s threat to the rule of law, the organization spoke out against his transgressions. Since then, the legal landscape has deteriorated to a degree we failed to imagine, with Mr. Trump and his allies explicitly threatening to upend fundamental tenets of the American constitutional system if returned to power.
We believe it is necessary to build a legal movement with the capability to recruit and engage dues-paying members, file legal briefs, provide mentorship and career opportunities, convene supporters and speak out as vocally and forthrightly as is necessary to meet the urgency that this moment requires.
First and foremost, this movement will work to inspire young legal talent and connect them with professional opportunities that will enable them to fulfill their vast potential without having to compromise their convictions.
Second, the movement will focus on building a large body of scholarship to counteract the new orthodoxy of anti-constitutional and anti-democratic law being churned out by the fever swamps. The Constitution cannot defend itself; lawyers and legal scholars must. Conservative scholars like the former federal appellate judges Michael McConnell and Thomas Griffith and the law professor Keith Whittington, who joins Yale from Princeton next year, are models for a new and more responsible conservative legal movement.
Third and most important, we will marshal principled voices to speak out against the endless stream of falsehoods and authoritarian legal theories that are being propagated almost daily. To do otherwise would be to cede the field to lawyers of bad faith. We have seen in recent years what the unchecked spread of wildly untrue and anti-democratic lies gets us. We lawyers have a gift for advocacy and persuasion; we must use it.
While those in the pro-democracy legal community — many of them progressives — might disagree with our overall legal philosophy, we welcome them with open arms. We are at a point when commitment to fundamental classical liberal tenets of our republican form of government is far more important than partisan politics and political party — and even philosophical questions about the law. Our country comes first, and our country is in a constitutional emergency, if not a constitutional crisis. We all must act accordingly, especially us lawyers.
The writers are lawyers. George Conway was in private practice. J. Michael Luttig was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit from 1991 to 2006. Barbara Comstock represented Virginia’s 10th District in Congress from 2015 to 2019. They serve on the board of the newly formed Society for the Rule of Law Institute, formerly called Checks & Balances.