Conservative lawyers erupted in thunderous applause and delivered a standing ovation to Justice Samuel Alito on Thursday night for the 5-4 opinion he authored earlier this year overturning a federal constitutional right to abortion that had been recognized for nearly half a century.
Alito was one of four justices who attended a black-tie gala at Union Station in Washington celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Federalist Society, the right-leaning lawyers’ group that has become instrumental in grooming and vetting candidates to be nominated to the federal judiciary by Republican presidents.
During a brief, lighthearted speech to the roughly 2000 attendees, Alito praised the organization for growing from its modest beginnings to be the highly influential operation it now is.
“Boy, is your work needed today,” the George W. Bush appointee declared. “Congratulations to the Federalist Society on 40 years.”
Alito made no mention of the court’s earth-shaking June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization or its overruling of Roe v. Wade, but shortly after he left the stage, one of the emcees of the event saluted Alito for his blistering opinion that savaged the reasoning of Roe.
“The Dobbs decision will forever be an indelible part of Justice Alito’s legacy,” said Steven Markham, founder of the group’s D.C. chapter. As the crowd cheered Alito, Markham laid on the praise. “I don’t know of any decision, on any court, by any judge, of which that judge could be more proud of that legacy,” he said, prompting more applause.
The court’s ruling in June — and POLITICO’s publication of a draft of Alito’s opinion about two months before the final decision was delivered — prompted protests at the court, across the country and at the homes of several conservative justices.
When Justice Amy Coney Barrett took the stage Thursday night, the crowd also gave her robust applause, prompting her to jokingly refer to those demonstrations. “It’s really nice to have a lot of noise not made by protesters outside of my house,” the appointee of President Donald Trump quipped.
Trump’s two other picks for the high court — Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — were also on hand for the gala but did not make public remarks.
In addition to the protests, the conservative justices received various threats in the lead-up to and following the abortion ruling. Alito recently said he feared being assassinated. In addition, a California man was arrested outside Kavanaugh’s Maryland home in early June and charged with attempting to assassinate the justice.
Due to those concerns, the gathering Thursday took place under unusual secrecy and unprecedented security. The program for the dinner was not announced in advance, even though individual justices have served as keynote speakers in past years.
Plainclothes police shadowed the justices, uniformed police were stationed around the perimeter of the event and Supreme Court police armed with assault rifles stood near journalists on a balcony overlooking the hall.
At least two well-known figures from Capitol Hill were present: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is scheduled to speak to the group’s annual conference on Friday.
During Thursday night’s presentation, attendees also heard from Leonard Leo, a prominent Federalist Society leader who played a pivotal role in Trump’s selection of Supreme Court nominees and in engineering efforts to install conservatives throughout the federal judiciary. Leo joked about being viewed by many on the left as a “Darth Vader” figure.
“I looked at that Darth Vader and said, boy, I want to be like him when I grow up,” said Leo, who is renowned for his prodigious fundraising efforts.
Leo said he marvels at the impact the Federalist Society had had over four decades and wants the organization to press on with its work.
“After 40 years, our successes have proliferated and our mission is more important and urgent than ever,” he said. “It’s great to celebrate this milestone. Let’s equality rededicate ourselves to spreading the principles and practices we hold dear and, together, for the sake of our country and culture, let’s make this mighty oak and all around it even stronger still.”