CRF Blog

Two Opposing Views on Interpreting the Constitution

by Damon Huss

Two societies of American lawyers support opposing views on interpreting the U.S. Constitution. They are the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society. Members of these groups are more than law and policy wonks; they are lawyers, law students, and quite often judicial appointees.

The Federalist Society. This group was founded in 1982 during President Ronald Reagan’s first term by a group of conservative and libertarian lawyers, professors, and judges. They wanted to reverse what they saw as a liberal dominance in America’s law schools. The group is active in recruiting college undergraduates who are interested in the law and publishes a reading list in conservative and libertarian ideas. It states its purpose on its main web site:

It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.

Supreme Court justices who are or have been members of the Federalist Society include Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

American Constitution Society.Founded in 2001 by a professor at Georgetown Law Center, the ACS serves as a progressive counterpart to the Federalist Society. Like the Federalist Society, the ACS does not litigate cases or take positions on legislation. Unlike the Federalist Society, however, the ACS seeks to counteract what it sees as a conservative legal movement gaining influence in America. It sponsors conferences, speakers, and a blog. It describes its mission on its web site:

 Our mission is to ensure that fundamental principles of human dignity, individual rights and liberties, genuine equality, and access to justice enjoy their rightful, central place in American law.

The Society’s board of advisors includes former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, and former U.S. solicitor general Walter E. Dellinger III.

In celebration of this year’s Constitution Day, two members of the societies held a debate over how to interpret the Constitution.