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What a Non-Scandal Can Teach Us about the Challenge of Being a Conservative Professional

U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., December 15, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/REUTERS)

Late last week I saw an intriguing headline over at Powerline — “High-level DOJ was VP of group that opposed Alito’s nomination.” The story was a bit surprising — especially considering the general quality of the Trump administration’s Federalist Society nominees. Trump’s nominee for assistant attorney general, Jessie Liu, had once served as vice president for a group called the National Association for Women Lawyers (NAWL). When she was serving as vice president, NAWL’s Committee for the Evaluation of Supreme Court Nominees sent a letter opposing Justice Alito’s confirmation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter was under the signature of the chair of the committee, but it was on NAWL letterhead, which included Liu’s name.

In response, Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff quite reasonably asks if Liu disagreed with the contents of the letter.

This Saturday, I talked with Liu about the issue. Two things were immediately clear. First, she supported Alito’s nomination and disagreed with the NAWL committee’s position. In fact, she signed a letter of Yale Law School alumni in support of Alito’s nomination, joining a number of conservative legal luminaries, including John Yoo, Steven Calabresi, George Conway, and Senator Josh Hawley. She says she “was then and am now a huge admirer of Justice Alito.” Second, she resigned from her position at NAWL in direct response to its leftward drift.

In fact, Liu’s experience will resonate with a number of conservative lawyers. It certainly resonated with me. Young conservative attorneys frequently grapple with the question of how much they should engage with ostensibly “neutral” legal organizations — especially early in their careers. Bar associations and other legal organizations can offer invaluable training, mentoring, and networking. However, to the extent they engage in politics, they tend to veer left. Do you turn your back on the mentoring and networking to avoid the politics, or do you engage with the group and hang in as long as you can?

Liu’s work with NAWL began innocently enough. In early 2005 she helped put together a panel discussion featuring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a number of female Supreme Court oral advocates. The program was a bipartisan success, and in part because of that success NAWL gave her a service award, and she became vice president of the group, then president elect. At the same time, however, Liu told me that NAWL seemed to get more politically active. In addition to its Supreme Court evaluation committee, it also had an amicus committee that took left-wing legal positions.

Liu didn’t serve on either committee and disagreed with the decisions of both. And so, in 2006 — when she took a new job in the Bush administration — she decided it was time for a “clean break.” She resigned from the group before she became president and never rejoined.

During this period, Liu was involved in an array of private legal organizations. In addition to NAWL, she was a member of the Federalist Society (she joined in 2001), the Asian-American Bar Association, Inns of Court, and the Yale Law School Alumni Association. Getting involved in a variety of legal organizations is what young lawyers do. It’s smart, it’s good for your career, and it’s good for the profession for lawyers to engage with their colleagues. But you have to engage with your eyes wide open. You don’t want to lend your name to efforts you oppose, and when you see the ideological drift, you have to be ready to do exactly what Liu did — resign and take your talents elsewhere.

Liu’s career speaks for itself. She served the Bush administration well, she’s rendering valuable service as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and she’s more than qualified to be elevated to the number three position at the DOJ. She not only supported Justice Alito, she had the fortitude to resign an executive position at NAWL when its bias became too plain. Mirengoff was right to raise his questions, but in my view, the answers are more than reassuring. She’s exactly the kind of nominee we need.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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