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'NYT' Reporter Digs Into Conservative Group's Secret Judicial Training Program


We want to turn now to the conservative effort to remake the federal courts. As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to do it. As president, it's been one of his most-touted successes. And while you've probably heard about The Federalist Society's role in doing that - that's the conservative legal group whose lists of potential judicial nominees has produced two Supreme Court justices - another group has also played a key role in the project, and that group's tactics are now raising ethical questions. We're talking about The Heritage Foundation. That's a conservative think tank based here in Washington, D.C.

This week, the New York Times wrote about a secret training program being launched by the group targeting recent law school graduates who had secured clerkships for federal judges. In exchange for participation in the all-expense-paid program, these clerks were to keep the training secret and signed something of a loyalty oath. New York Times reporter Adam Liptak wrote about this program earlier this week, which The Heritage Foundation says it has now suspended after his piece was published. Adam's with us now. Adam, thanks so much for joining us.

ADAM LIPTAK: It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So what was the stated purpose of this program? How was it advertised?

LIPTAK: So the program was a three-day kind of seminar. They called it a training academy, in which they would teach these potential law clerks about legal concepts seemingly tilted in a conservative direction.

MARTIN: But you spoke with some legal scholars who said that this raised ethical concerns. What were the concerns?

LIPTAK: Well, they said there may be nothing wrong with a seminar. There may even be nothing wrong with an all-expenses-paid seminar. But there was something problematic about requiring the people who attended to keep what they learned secret, probably even from the judges that they were going to serve, and something deeply problematic about having to make a promise that whatever they learned will won't used for - and I'm going to quote now from their materials - "for any purpose contrary to the mission or interest of The Heritage Foundation"

MARTIN: And just dig into that a bit. Like, the ethical concern here is - what? Dig into the ethical - specific ethical question here.

LIPTAK: So, it looks like, in the words of some legal experts, a kind of indoctrination. A law clerk is an employee of the federal government and the judicial system. The law clerk's loyalties ought to run to the judicial system and to their judges and not to a private organization that describes itself as a bastion of the American conservative legal movement.

MARTIN: So is the concern here that they were indoctrinating people into sort of placing an ideology above their commitment to do justice?

LIPTAK: Yeah, that's exactly right. So it's it's probably an affirmative good thing for law clerks and others to learn as much as they can about all different kinds of legal concepts, including ones that come from a particular ideological direction, but not a good thing to promise to keep it secret, and not a good thing to promise not to act in a direction different from what The Heritage Foundation wants them to act in.

MARTIN: So there are all kinds of groups that exist to create fellowship among the like-minded, as well as to create pipelines. I mean, half of the purpose of think tanks in Washington, D.C., is to create pipelines. You know, fraternities, sororities, they all kind of create pipelines. The Heritage Foundation has been particularly successful at this. They've been particularly intentional at this - creating a shadow government, if you will. And for - and people on the other side of the aisle do the same thing. Does this represent kind of a new strategy for Heritage?

LIPTAK: I think it's it's a next step in a program that's been very successful, as you say, in cultivating and identifying young conservative lawyers who can then be placed on the bench. And Heritage will say - and they'll be right about this - that they're counteracting the American legal academy where, at the fancy law schools, the professors and students are overwhelmingly liberal. So they're trying to counteract that. But legal experts say they may have taken a step too far in trying to get into the world of law clerks, who have obligations to the justice system and to judges and to not only expose them to ideas - which is probably fine - but also to make them make these pledges of secrecy and loyalty, which legal experts say is not fine.

MARTIN: And what does Heritage say about this? I do note that when your piece published online Thursday that Heritage put out a statement, said that they were actually suspending this program. What else did they say?

LIPTAK: They have been very closed mouth about it. I tried them repeatedly before and after the article was published. They said it was a private program. They didn't want to say who is paying for it. You know, their materials say that generous donors were making a significant financial investment in each and every attendee. They wouldn't say who those donors were. They said sitting federal appeals court judges were among the faculty. They wouldn't say who those judges were. And when they decided to suspend the program - which was supposed to happen in February - they just issued a brief bland statement saying they were re-evaluating it.

LIPTAK: Which suggests that perhaps they may try to reconstitute it in a different form.

LIPTAK: It's entirely possible, yes.

MARTIN: That's Adam Liptak, he covers the Supreme Court and legal affairs for The New York Times. Adam Liptak, thanks so much for talking to us.

LIPTAK: It's great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.