I just finished Steven Teles’s important new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement. As far as legal nonfiction goes, this is not going to be the bestseller that Jeffrey Toobin’s or Jan Crawford Greenburg’s recent tomes on the Supreme Court have become, let alone Clarence Thomas’s memoirs. In part this is because more people are interested in the intense Kremlinology of the least public branch of government – the nine black-robed magistrates in their marble palace at One First Street – than in the nuts and bolts of the reaction to the left-wing excesses of the legal academy.
But more than that, this worthy study will fly under the radar more than it otherwise should because it is an academic book, written with the research methodology and citation practices of a social scientist investigating a particular phenomenon. It is to Teles’s great credit that he avoided (for the most part) the political science jargon in which such a project could have gotten swallowed, but a journalistic narrative this ain’t. Perhaps to even greater credit, Teles managed to write this book without once resorting to the often confusing and usually superfluous empirical models and regression analyses that are now demanded by practitioners of the “soft” sciences – probably because he already has tenure.
Teles ably takes us through the development of law and economics – the only way to get alternative voices into law schools resistant to anti-New Deal, anti-Warren Court views – and two generations of libertarian/conservative public interest law, as well as cataloguing the wealth of archival materials from what the Clintons considered the heart of the vast right-wing conspiracy, the Federalist Society. Curiously, the only mentions of Cato are in a footnote describing Charles Koch as one of our founders and a brief reference to my boss, Roger Pilon, “fuming in his Washington office when the [Harriet] Miers [Supreme Court] nomination was announced.”
In any event, I do recommend the book to those interested in the successes, failures, and false starts of a broad movement to save the law – and consequently legal practice and the courts – from the radicalization that beset academia and public interest organizations in the 1960s. Is it better to set up law & econ outposts in hostile institutions (Yale, Harvard) or takeover law schools wholesale (George Mason)? Is it better to have businessmen (Mountain States Legal Foundation) or idealists (Institute for Justice) running a public interest litigation shop? What sorts of cases are best taken up by the likes of IJ so as to have maximum long-term effect on the legal culture? These are the sorts of questions Teles analyzes, providing some interesting answers and leaving, as one expects from an academic tract, room for further research.