Conservative lawyers to launch Society for Rule of Law to counter Maga movement

The group’s co-founders include retired Fourth Circuit judge J Michael Luttig, attorney George Conway, and former GOP Representative Barbara Comstock

Andrew Feinberg
Monday 06 November 2023 15:20 GMT

A group of preeminent conservative lawyers who opposed former president Donald Trump’s efforts to manipulate the legal system are launching a new, long-term project aimed at fostering respect for the US constitution and the rule of law in the legal profession.

The group, which initially began operating in 2018 under the name Checks and Balances, includes preeminent conservative legal figures such as J Michael Luttig, the former Fourth Circuit judge who was shortlisted as a Supreme Court pick during the George W Bush administration, and George Conway, who was former president Donald Trump’s pick to run the Justice Department civil division before he became a prominent critic of the ex-president.

Unlike other groups formed by anti-Trump conservatives during Mr Trump’s presidency, the Checks and Balances group has been a bit of a shoestring operation, until now operating with a small budget raised from its’ members.

But a source familiar with the group’s plans told The Independent that a decision was made by the group’s board to seek outside funding for the purposes of a major relaunch and rebranding operation as the “Society for the Rule of Law,” which has now acquired the proper licenses to operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an affiliated 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organisation that can undertake some political work. The society’s roll-out will include a “Rule of Law summit” taking place on Wednesday evening in Washington.

This new funding stream for the group includes a major donation from the Defending Democracy Together Institute, the anti-Trump Republican group founded by former Weekly Standard journalists and ex-Reagan administration officials such as William Kristol and Mona Charen.

In a statement to The Independent, Defending Democracy Together executive director Sarah Longwell said the timing for the new effort couldn’t be better, citing the continued threats to the American system of government posed by Mr Trump, who has openly mused about using a second term in the White House to eviscerate post-Watergate reforms which put layers of separation between the Justice Department and the White House. In recent weeks, both the New York Times and Washington Post have reported on plans by Mr Trump and his allies to use the machinery of government to punish real and perceived enemies and critics of the ex-president should he win a second term in office.

“Every day we see new evidence of the active threat posed to the rule of law by corrupt actors putting partisanship over principle. We need leaders who model principled behavior for the next generation, who push back vocally against the Big Lie, and who create a permission structure for people to follow the law—not knuckle under to political pressure,” Ms Longwell said.

“There’s no one better positioned to fill that void than the Society for the Rule of Law. And there’s no time that’s more urgent for us to tackle these problems than now.”

According to people involved in plans for the revamped group, it would not be an explicitly anti-Trump group. Instead, it would be built around bringing together people in the legal profession who want to centre constitutional principles, including limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the independence of the justice system from political influence.

One source close to the effort told The Independent that the society’s roll-out will involve outreach to law students across the US with the aim of building chapters and instating a culture of respect for the constitution in the next generation of the legal profession.

Judge Luttig, who has become a prominent critic of Mr Trump’s actions in the wake of his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden and was a key adviser to then-vice president Mike Pence as he resisted the then-president’s efforts to bully him into unlawfully refusing to certify electoral votes from swing states won by Mr Biden, told The Independent in an interview that the new group’s efforts have been made necessary by the failure of existing right-leaning legal groups to speak out against the ex-president’s disrespect for the constitution.

This includes the Federalist Society, which for decades has formed the backbone of a conservative legal movement that has reshaped the court system and influenced generations of conservatives in how to approach the study and practice of law.

“Over the past several years ... the members of the group and I have felt that other legal groups and societies and have declined to stand up for the rule of law and against the the legal excesses of the former President and his administration. And we believe that that at this moment in American history, lawyers must stand up for the rule of law and defend the Constitution and American democracy, and the rule of law. And they must do so without regard to political party affiliation, or, or ideological,” he said.

The former appellate judge, who was a star witness during the House January 6 select committee’s blockbuster hearings last year, said many conservative and libertarian-minded lawyers have been hesitant to speak out because of fear of damage to their own careers, and compared the silence in GOP legal circles to the refusal of elected Republicans to push back against Mr Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.

He told The Independent that he and the group’s co-founders have “much more ambitions” plans for the Society for the Rule of Law which go farther than “merely reinforcing American democracy”.

“We believe that American democracy and the rule of law are in grave peril today. And that the legal profession ... is uniquely positioned and uniquely obligated to stand up and support and defend the Constitution and the rule of law today. And the profession has not done that over the past seven years,” he said.

Speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday, Mr Conway, a veteran litigator who previously served on the Federalist Society’s board and gained prominence as an anti-Trump commentator even as his then-wife, Kellyanne Conway, served as Counselor to the President in the Trump White House, recalled how the original Checks and Balances group had been founded to stand up against Mr Trump’s criticism of the Justice Department during the DOJ probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and said those issues were “small potatoes” compared to what the country faces from a renewed Trump movement.

“If you told us in 2018, we’d see a president fomenting an insurrection, calling for the suspension of the Constitution, being convicted of rape after he left office and being indicted four times and yet arguing that he is being politically persecuted when if any one of us had done that, we’d already be in jail, it was beyond our comprehension,” he said. 

“This goes to the fundamental aspect of what makes America America. When people look at America, they think of the rule of law. But that brand is being damaged, and we need to help restore it”.

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