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At Yale Law School, Joe Miller discovers Federalist Society

federalist_societyAs Joe Miller tells it, a conservative like him in Yale Law School in the 1990s was a rare breed. In an interview with Alaska Dispatch, Miller said "I knew what I was stepping into. I knew it would be an environment where conservative ideals were challenged significantly."

Miller earned his Yale law degree in 1995 before coming to Alaska to practice law and run for office. Backed by the Tea Party Express and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, he's now on the verge of becoming the Republican candidate for U.S. senator in the Nov. 2 general election.

Despite Miller's memories of himself as a lonely conservative while at Yale, he was a member of one of the leading conservative legal groups -- the Yale Law Federalist Society. The society, a group of conservative and libertarian law students, was founded at Yale in 1982. Its mission is to preserve the "mainstays of our free government: federalism, the separation of powers, and judicial fidelity to the text of the Constitution."

Although Miller was a member, he said having a wife and kids kept him from being overly active in the society.

The Yale Law Federalist Society's members might have been going against the liberal grain when they started, but by the 1990s the society became "central casting for the biggest names in Washington's ideological wars -- Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Kenneth Starr," writes Nina Easton in the "Gang of Five," a book about conservative activism.

Today, the Yale legal society is part of a larger group known simply as The Federalist Society. It boasts about 40,000 lawyers, law students, scholars, and other individuals who network and help each other's careers. It's funded by individual memberships and foundations, including the foundation of David and Charles Koch, two of the wealthiest men in America who have, some say, single-handedly propagated the political ideology driving the current Tea Party movement.

Miller is still a member of the group, as is Randy DeSoto, Miller's campaign manager, along with other legal heavyweights, incuding U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and scores of politicians-turned lawyers.

Indeed, for a Republican seeking higher office, a speech to the group is now nearly a prerequisite. The Federalist Society boasts that it is one of the most active student groups at Yale Law School. In legal circles there's even a phrase called "Federalist Society types," which refers to legal scholars and others who decry "judicial activism."

As powerful as it is, it wasn't long ago that membership to The Federalist Society was a potential political liability. By the early 2000s, fears were spreading that the Federalist Society was so powerful -- its reach spreading from the Supreme Court to the Justice Department to the Pentagon-- that it was forming a cabal to take over the judicial system.

So in 2005, when President George W. Bush put Judge John Roberts up for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, the administration worked hard to distance him from the society, even though Roberts was listed as being on the group's steering committee. Roberts was considered a moderate Republican and needed to keep the label if he was going to be confirmed.

Kris Kobach, who recently won the Kansas Republican race for secretary of state, was a classmate of Miller's at Yale, and speaks at Federalist Society functions. Both men are from Kansas. Like Miller, Kobach enjoyed Tea Party support in his campaign, and the two have kept in touch since graduation, including when Kobach served as counsel to Ashcroft in the Department of Justice.

It's these kinds of connections that membership to the society encourages. When Miller first called Kobach to say he was planning a run against Murkowski, Kobach was surprised. His first thought was, he recalled, "Wow. That's kind of like saying 'I'm going to go from running the local 5-K race to trying to win the New York City Marathon."

Miller said his time at Yale solidified his conservative beliefs, mostly because he remembers his conservative arguments holding up well in classroom debates.

"In the top law school in the nation, the conservative ideal was able to win out over the liberal mumbo-jumbo that so many of my classmates would express," Miller said. "It certainly reflected that the conservative ideal was defensible, and not only defensible but an ideal that triumphs over the other political ideologies."

Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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