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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., speaks at the American Constitution Society's first national convention in Washington.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

The legal elite of past and future Democratic presidents gathered this weekend in Washington to cultivate job contacts, swap ideas and keep up their morale at a time when Republicans control the White House and Congress. Several hundred law students and lawyers, 14 federal judges, and a raft of former Clinton administration officials, from former attorney general Janet Reno to ex-White House chief of staff John Podesta, planned strategy at the first national convention of the American Constitution Society.

They agreed that for liberals times are hard: On most fronts, Bush administration officials and conservative judges are dominating the law and public policy.

But the liberal lawyers believe their organization, the American Constitution Society, will enable them to fight back.

The ACS intends to do what the conservative Federalist Society does for Republican presidents: cultivate young legal talent, formulate positions to take in high-profile Supreme Court cases, and help select judicial nominees who share their views of the law.

POLEMICAL SPEECH

Probably the most polemical speech of the weekend gathering came from appeals court judge Stephen Reinhardt. The words “liberal judge” are not “dirty words,” Reinhardt declared. “They’re not to me and they shouldn’t be to anybody in this room.”

Reinhardt, who was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by President Carter in 1980, added, “Let’s be clear about another thing: ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ are not the same. ... We ought to restore a liberal, progressive philosophy this nation needs and our Constitution demands.” Reinhardt said judges should return to the liberal philosophy of former Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and William O. Douglas.

Reinhardt was one of the two judges who issued last year’s ruling that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violate the First Amendment because, they said, the phrase connotes an impermissible government endorsement of monotheism.

Reinhardt told his ACS audience, “in the next administration let’s hope we have a president who appoints judges ... who will change the direction of the federal judiciary the way Bush and Reagan vowed to do and have done.”

Reinhardt denounced three laws signed by President Clinton in 1996, calling them “the most anti-civil liberties, anti-individual rights legislation in the history of this country.” The Clinton-signed laws he attacked were:

The habeas corpus reform act, which speeds up appeals in death penalty cases and limits the ability of prisoners to challenge their convictions.

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The immigration act, which makes it easier to deport non-citizens who commit crimes or overstay their visas.

The prison litigation reform act, which curbs the power of judges to order wardens to provide better conditions for convicts.

CALL FOR GAY MARRIAGE

Reinhardt was not the only judge to make a provocative speech at the ACS event.

Endorsing same-sex marriage, U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Batts said traditional heterosexual marriage was a “convenient mechanism to enforce conformity ... which is where I think the religious Right would like to keep it.”

Citing the 50 percent divorce rate, Batts said, “We (gays and lesbians) could show heterosexuals who marry a whole lot if we were able to take on the institution of marriage and turn it into what we know it could be. ... We can show them what marriage is really worth and what it means.”

In her address to the group, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. did not declare her presidential candidacy, but she did indict Bush and his administration in terms worthy of a presidential contender.

“There really is a vast right-wing conspiracy — my only regret was in using the word ‘conspiracy’ — there’s definitely nothing secret about it,” Clinton said.

The Bush administration, she argued, was intent not only on undoing Clinton administration policy, but on “turning the clock back” to before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered an end to racial segregation in public schools.

She also said Bush officials were undoing “the logic of evidence — they have created this evidence-free zone we’re now inhabiting in Washington,” an apparent reference to Bush’s justification for war with Iraq. (Clinton voted for last October’s congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq.)

Bush administration officials, Clinton warned, are “focused and relentless and absolutely undeterrable.” She added, “If the American public really understood much of this administration’s agenda, they would reject it.”

Clinton denounced Bush judicial nominees Texas judge Priscilla Owen, former Justice Department lawyer Miguel Estrada and Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, and defended the right of Senate Democrats to block a vote on their nominations by filibustering.

THE LIBERAL AGENDA

The liberal lawyers made clear their agenda with workshops on abolishing the death penalty, protecting the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion and winning legal recognition for gay and lesbian marriages.

Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told one panel discussion that those who support legal abortion had to more skillfully frame their appeals to popular opinion. She said there were many religious Americans who think that abortion should be legal and that “sex can even be an appropriate experience outside of marriage,” a line that won a round of applause from her audience.

Northrup said abortion right advocates ought not use euphemisms. She was critical of Clinton for not specifically using the word “abortion” in her speech to the group. “She said ‘Roe,’” Northrup said. “She said ‘choice,’ but she did not say ‘abortion.’”

STUDENTS MEET ROLE-MODELS

Many of the attendees at the ACS convention were students from the nation’s prestigious law schools.

For them the event was a chance to get acquainted with lawyers who may someday be in a position to hire them for a future Democratic administration.

Harvard Law School student Andrea Friedman, who served this summer as an intern in the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said after taking part in one ACS panel discussion, “There are a lot of people here who have jobs that I would love to have in 10 years.” She said the speakers at the ACS event were “a Who’s Who of people working toward causes I care about, using the law to advance causes that I think are important.”

Friedman said the contacts she was making at the ACS event might well affect her own future: “You would have to be blind and foolish to not take advantage of who you know, as much as what you know. The Federalist Society has had such great success because they do that: They hire their own.”

In his speech, Judge Reinhardt spoke directly to students such as Friedman. “You are the future of this country and the future of the judiciary.... I hope your objective is not to replace a conservative era with a moderate, mushy, middle-of-the-road era. ... I hope that those of you who are going to be judges will have the opportunity to serve one day as judges in a liberal era.”

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