Conservative Minority Found a Voice at HLS – And It’s Still Talking


The political climate of Harvard University during Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts’s years there was largely one hostile to conservatism, perhaps even more so than it is today. In 1973, the year he entered Harvard College as a freshman, conservatives of Roberts’s stock were either completely ignored or endlessly ridiculed.

But by the time Roberts graduated from Harvard Law School six years later, the atmosphere had changed considerably. Conservative and libertarian students, among them former senator and secretary of energy Spencer Abraham, founded the Journal of Law and Public Policy in 1977 as an answer to what they believed was the widespread liberal bias in HLS’s other publications.

The establishment of JLPP allowed conservative voices to be heard over the din of the quasi-Marxist contemplations that dominated the repartee of Roberts’s liberal colleagues. At the time, the Dean of HLS, the late Albert Sacks, denied the group university funding because of a policy that prevented politically affiliated student organizations from receiving financial support.

Unlike other, nonpartisan legal journals at HLS that received school dollars, JLPP became independently incorporated and could not afford professional administrative support. Student editors have always handled all business and distribution matters themselves. Despite these challenges, JLPP rapidly became a major player in the national political scene. The subsequent formation of the Federalist Society at HLS in 1982 strengthened the conservative student movement at Harvard and other law schools and in professional legal communities across the nation.

Roberts held conservative views throughout his college years, but many say that he was not an activist in the way one might expect from a future judicial star. Roberts was never a member of JLPP–he devoted his energies to the ultra-prestigious Harvard Law Review–and has also denied membership in a professional chapter of the Federalist Society, which followed.

Conservative students at HLS today may experience some of the same estrangement from their law school peers as their Roberts-era predecessors, but they are more organized and more visible than ever. And what other law students think is not necessarily a major concern. “We have never tried to proselytize within the [HLS] community,” said Jennifer Carter, and HLS 3L and current editor-in-chief of JLPP.

She added that the journal has a circulation of more than 7,000, and that Bush administration officials and other national policymakers and politicians are among the publication’s broad readership base. Lawyers across the U.S. also obtain automatic subscriptions to JLPP by paying dues to its sister organization, the Federalist Society. A percentage of those dues comprise much of JLPP’s budget, Carter said.

The New York Times conducted several interviews with Roberts’s law school contemporaries, and according to one friend, Stephen Galebach, students’ political inclinations were often evident less through their stances on particular policy issues preferences than through their analyses of the law. Belief in judicial restraint was the hallmark of a conservative. Judicial restraint is still a principle conservative value. But while today legal reasoning is still often indicative of a student’s leanings, conservatism at HLS is now frequently associated with specific views on divisive national policy issues.

“Policymaking has always been something [JLPP] has been interested in, [more so] than politics,” Carter said.

But politics is inseparable from policymaking, and the Board of Advisors for JLPP boasts two U.S. Senators, HLS professor and former Solicitor General of the United States Charles Fried, and a host of other high-profile political conservatives. These advisors act as mentors and may solicit articles for JLPP from colleagues, but do not have editorial control.

Those who do have editorial control must sift through hundreds of submissions each year to decide what to publish in the journal’s three annual issues. Carter said she feels there has actually been more fodder for publication during George W. Bush’s presidency than there was during the Bill Clinton years, because there is extensive disagreement among conservatives as to whether Bush is conservative enough.

“This is a far more interesting era,” Carter said.

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