WASHINGTON — A new legal group, the Madison Society for Law and Policy, hopes to become a progressive competitor to the conservative Federalist Society, a formidable force in the legal profession.
The Federalist Society, which opposed what it considered the liberal tilt at many law schools, began attracting libertarian-minded and conservative students in the 1980's. Now, some of its 25,000 members hold influential positions in the Bush administration, for example Spencer Abraham, the secretary of energy, and Theodore B. Olson, who was confirmed last week as solicitor general.
The founder and president of the Madison group, Prof. Peter J. Rubin of Georgetown Law School, said, "We view it as a counter to the Federalist Society, which has been extraordinarily successful in taking, in some cases, extreme views, views outside of the mainstream, and moving them into the center stage of American law."
The Madison society plans to emphasize legal values like compassion, equality and respect for human dignity, values that Professor Rubin said "have largely been read out of American law through the ascendancy of various strands of legal thought over the last 20 years."
David Halperin, a speechwriter in the Clinton administration and a member of the group's board of directors, explained the society this way: "There is a need for this organization, especially now. Conservative thought now dominates the law, from classrooms to courtrooms, and in terms of judicial nominees.
"It's important that there is an effort to change the terms of the debate so that we get more moderate and progressive judges, we get more moderate and progressive policies, and we help put changes in place that are more consistent with an appropriate vision of the Constitution and the law."
The Madison society's first chapter, organized in 1999 at Georgetown Law School, has 125 to 150 members, says the departing president, Anu Chaturvedi. But society organizers say chapters will open at a dozen law schools this fall, including Harvard, Columbia, New York University, the University of North Carolina, George Washington University, the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California.
The group is named after James Madison, the former president of the United States and a major architect of the Constitution. But Madison, a Virginian, was also a slaveholder, a fact that group members acknowledge is a problem.
"That's not a part of the legacy we embrace," said Professor Rubin, who added that Madison "was deeply concerned about protecting minorities from the will of the persistent majority, even though his vision wasn't fully realized until after the Civil War and adoption of the 14th Amendment."
Prof. Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard Law School, a member of the Madison society's advisory board, said of the group, "A lot of people are very interested and excited."
Like the Federalist Society, the Madison group hopes to become not only an intellectual breeding ground on law school campuses, but a network of lawyers who can, over time, wield significant influence in the political and judicial realms.
The Federalist Society holds well- attended legal conferences and has the support of numerous federal judges. Of the 70 candidates interviewed so far by the administration for judicial appointments, about a fourth were recommended by the Federalist Society. With the Senate Judiciary Committee under a Democratic chairman, it is unclear how many of President Bush's conservative nominees will be confirmed.
"When people talk about a vast, right-wing conspiracy, it misses the point," Professor Rubin said. "They're not having secret meetings. It's a group of people who all know each other. Are we interested in creating a community of people who know each other and are organized? Absolutely."
The Madison society, which has obtained money to help organize from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has applied for nonprofit status and is hunting for office space. Professor Rubin says the group hopes to raise $300,000 to $400,000 in its first year.
Members of the Federalist Society, which has an annual budget of $3 million, say they welcome the competition. "The Federalist Society is about encouraging open debate about fundamental principles of individual freedom and limited government and the idea that the courts should say what the law is, rather than what they wish it to be," said Eugene B. Meyer, the executive director. "If this group is interested in encouraging debate, we'd certainly welcome that."
But at Georgetown, Ms. Chaturvedi said that some Madison posters had been defaced and Federalist Society posters had been pinned on the Madison group's bulletin board.
Mr. Meyer disavowed such conduct and said Federalist Society chapters had confronted similar acts of intolerance for years.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company