The University of Chicago Law School Federalist Society received its national organization’s top student honor last weekend, bringing home the James Madison Chapter of the Year Award—a distinction that capped off an active year in which the chapter hosted dozens of lunch talks, organized a daylong regional conference, coordinated pro bono projects, and stepped up its community outreach.
“This chapter came into the year with ambitious goals and worked tirelessly to achieve them,” said Kamron Kompani, who presented the award as a deputy director of the national organization’s student division. “Their speaker series has been especially impressive, with 50 events planned for the year and an average of over 100 attendees per event—the best in the chapter's history. They also served as leaders in the region, advising other chapters and building a stronger community in Chicago. This led to a successful Midwest Regional Symposium that saw students from eight different law schools in attendance. We enjoyed working with this group all year, and we look forward to seeing the chapter continue to grow.”
Added Todd Henderson, the Michael J. Marks Professor of Law and the Chicago chapter’s faculty advisor: “Frankly, there was no other choice. In my two decades as a member, I’ve never seen a chapter do better at engaging law students with substantive content about our Constitution and public policy. Congratulations to them all.”
The national organization presented the awards at its 2019 National Student Symposium in Phoenix. University of Chicago Law School alumnus Samuel Bray, ’05, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, received the Joseph Story Award, which is given annually to a legal scholar under 40. The University of Chicago’s William Baude, professor of law and Aaron Director Research Scholar, received the award’s predecessor, the Paul M. Bator Award, in 2017.
This year, Chapter President Eric Wessan also received the Patrick Henry Award for Leadership.
Wessan credited previous Chicago chapter presidents with setting the stage for the group’s recent growth and success and said he was grateful to current Federalist Society members for devoting time and energy toward continuing—and building on—that legacy.
“Chapters around the country have been putting on more events, [and we have all had] high-quality speakers and more students willing to listen to alternative ideas, so I'm extremely humbled and grateful that the University of Chicago Federalist Society chapter was recognized as leading the way,” Wessan said. “I hope all chapters will continue to innovate in ways that move the entire Federalist Society and the public discourse forward in a positive direction.”
The Federalist Society worked to foster debate at the Law School by teaming up with other student organizations, including the Law Women’s Caucus, Defenders, and the Dallin Oaks Society. A collaboration with the Environmental Law Society led the Federalist Society to embrace that group’s mission of zero-waste lunch talks, using compostable plates and forks and recyclable materials at nearly all of its lunch events.
“I am grateful for the work that Eric and the Federalist Society have done this year to build community by partnering with other student organizations,” Dean of Students Charles N. Todd said. “It is important to foster conversation with people who don't always agree with us—that meaningful exchange of ideas helps us to become better thinkers. And I’m not at all surprised to see our students recognized nationally as leaders, given the dedication I see among the Federalist Society and across all of our student organizations.”
The Law School's Federalist Society chapter, which saw its membership climb in the past year from about 75 to more than 100, expanded its community outreach efforts in the past year. It hosted a variety of social events—including karaoke nights and a large welcome-back-to-school barbecue at Promontory Point early in the school year—and organized pro bono opportunities with the First Liberty Institute, the Goldwater Institute, and the Institute for Justice.
At First Liberty, several Federalist Society students researched religious liberty violations.
“Students looked for examples of religious liberty violations, such as prison officials withholding kosher food for a Jewish inmate or denying a Muslim inmate the right to pray. Students then completed case summaries listing the facts, question(s) of law, and the outcome,” said David Sandefer, ’19, who served as the Federalist Society’s pro bono chair, a new position that the chapter created in 2018.
Students volunteering with the Goldwater Institute researched administrative deference at the state level and drafted memoranda on the findings. Student also assisted attorneys from the Institute for Justice with an administrative appeal concerning the impounding of vehicles by the city of Chicago.
“Students at UChicago have a very strong desire to work on pro bono matters,” Sandefer said. “Although students involved in the UChicago Federalist Society have given back in the past, we decided that streamlining the process this last year would increase involvement and create a steady pipeline of projects for the student body.”
The students also organized their second annual Midwest Regional Symposium, which featured more than a dozen speakers—including Judge James C. Ho, ’99, of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Judge Gregory G. Katsas of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit—and drew more than 100 attendees. The event included discussions on affirmative action, administrative law, and religious liberty.
At the national conference in Arizona, Walter Pelton, ’19, presented Bray with the Joseph Story Award, which is given to young professors who have demonstrated excellence in legal scholarship, a commitment to teaching, a concern for students, and have worked significantly to advance the rule of law in a free society. Pelton noted that Bray is known as “witty, warm, and committed to bringing out the best in his students.”
“This award was also a no-brainer,” Henderson said of Bray, his former student. “Professor Bray is that rare combination of a scholar and a gentleman.”
Bray spoke about the Law School’s chapter when he accepted the award.
“When I was a law student at the University of Chicago, the Federalist Society was a critical part of the intellectual life of the school and of my legal education,” he said. “What made the Federalist Society so distinctive was its commitment ... to the critical discussion of legal and constitutional ideas that are foundational for our republic.”
Wessan said the Law School’s Federalist Society chapter would continue to create opportunities to collaborate and engage in debate.
“I'm really proud of the community we've fostered at the Law School through the lunch talks, social [events], and pro bono work,” Wessan said. “We have a community of givers—people who are really committed to helping making the Law School a more thoughtful place. Just watching all of these really smart, talented people work hard for the same goal is something that I think is inspiring.”