The influence of the Federalist Society stretches from the FL Supreme Court to everyday Floridians. But what is it?

By: - January 15, 2019 7:00 am
Florida Supreme Court

Florida Supreme Court

As new Gov. Ron DeSantis began reshaping the Florida Supreme Court last week, many Floridians may have missed that his first court appointee, Barbara Lagoa, is a member of the Federalist Society.

The brief reference was listed amid 144 pages of an application to become a justice on Florida’s high court, records show.

But what is the Federalist Society?

Though people may not know of it unless they’re lawyers, political gurus or policy experts, the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization has changed the judicial landscape nationwide with its conservative and libertarian principles and a cadre of members who have helped advance a broad conservative agenda.

Federalist Society member lawyers have been involved in numerous legal challenges that stem from the group’s views, according to attorneys Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, who in 2013 published The Federalist Society: How Conservatives took the Law Back from Liberals.

The authors wrote that Federalist Society lawyers in government and in conservative public interest firms have moved to  “challenge government regulation of the economy; roll back affirmative action; invalidate laws providing access to the courts by aggrieved workers, consumers, and environmentalists; expand state support for religious institutions and programs; oppose marriage equality; increase statutory impediments to women’s ability to obtain an abortion; defend state’s rights; increase presidential power; and otherwise advance a broad conservative agenda.”

Will all that happen in Florida? Time will tell, but DeSantis is already moving to bolster the conservative wing of the high court.

And lawyers and advocacy groups have already expressed concern about his first appointment to the Florida Supreme Court.

Florida Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo said, “While disappointing, it’s not surprising that Governor DeSantis has appointed Judge Lagoa, whose nomination is supported by far-right organizations that actively campaign against gay and women’s rights. We urge Judge (Barbara) Lagoa not to insert her personal opinions into Florida’s highest court. And as we have in the past, we again urge Ron DeSantis to expand his list of nominees to include more diverse candidates.”

At the same time, Republicans and conservative groups praised DeSantis last week when he picked Lagoa, a Cuban-American judge who is the first Hispanic woman in history to serve on the state’s high court. She had been an appellate judge at the Third District Court of Appeal prior to the appointment. Lagoa replaces Justice R. Fred Lewis, one of three liberal-leaning justices who retired from the Florida Supreme Court.

On Monday, DeSantis made a second pick for the Florida Supreme Court ­– Robert J. Luck, also of the Third District Court of Appeal.

In his Florida Supreme Court application, Luck did not list himself as a Federalist Society member, but he did include that he was a moderator for a February 2018 Federalist Society conference in Florida. DeSantis was listed as a speaker at that same event, as a then-Florida Congressman.

The Federalist Society posts a list of “contributors” that includes moderators or panelists such as DeSantis and Luck. It isn’t certain whether such contributors are formal members.

The Federalist Society website makes it clear that people listed as contributors for events “does not imply any other endorsement or relationship between the person and the Federalist Society.”

A Tampa Bay Times article early last year said that DeSantis had become involved with the Federal Society when he was at Harvard, where he earned a law degree in 2005.

Late last year, the News Service of Florida reported that nine of 11 Florida Supreme Court nominees considered by DeSantis indicated in their applications that they were Federalist Society members.

The organization includes current and former U.S. Supreme Court justices.

As to the Florida Supreme Court, court spokesman Craig Waters said he couldn’t confirm whether all current justices are Federalist Society members, but he said they do attend a variety of events at various bar associations and other organizations, including the Federalist Society.

“They go to every kind of organization you have ever heard of,” Waters said.

Since its founding in 1982, the Federalist Society has created “a group of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to reforming the current legal order,” according to the society’s website.

The organization includes tens of thousands of lawyers and other legal professionals as well as scholars and other individuals, the website says. The group says it does “not lobby for legislation, take policy positions, or sponsor or endorse nominees and candidates for public service.”

But in The Federalist Society: How Conservatives took the Law Back from Liberals, the authors said that “Every single federal judge appointed by President George H. W. Bush or President George W. Bush was either a member or approved by members of the society.”

Also, Amanda Hollis-Brusky, author of Ideas with Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution, said in an NPR radio interview last year that an executive vice president of the Federal Society took leave to create a list of U.S. Supreme Court nominees for President Donald Trump.

In Florida, the head of a Christian conservative group on Monday praised DeSantis’s selection of court appointee Luck.

To speak with, or listen to Judge Luck, is to realize you are in the presence of a truly unique and (the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia-like intellect,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, whose mission is to “Protect and Defend Life, Marriage, Family and Liberty through Education, Advocacy and Empowerment.”

Stemberger, an attorney who is listed as a Federalist Society member in his bio on the policy council website, described Luck as a “brilliant” jurist.

“Luck fully understands that the role of a judge is a limited one of restraint,” he said. “He has demonstrated over the years through his written decisions and public statements, that the job of a judge is to interpret law as it is written and not make law or engage in result-oriented decision making.”

DeSantis has one more pick for a new Supreme Court justice. So in all, he will pick three new justices that replace the three liberal-leaning justices who recently retired.

“I think he has already sent out a clear signal about the type of judiciary branch he (DeSantis) wants,” said Trelvis Randolph, general counsel of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP.

“We can pretty much see the make-up of the court.”

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.