Editor's note: The following is a transcript of remarks delivered by Leonard Leo at the 2020 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner.
It is a privilege to receive the 20th annual Hamilton Award, along with my friend and colleague of many years, Gene Meyer. Your recognition of the Federalist Society’s work is deeply humbling. On behalf of everybody who has contributed to the Society’s efforts and success, thank you.
I am a longtime admirer of the Manhattan Institute. Since 1977, you have helped to foster a society where all people can flourish. We share the same goal. Like the Manhattan Institute, the Federalist Society envisions a country where the rule of law is respected, where individual freedom is protected, and where human dignity is given force through the structural features of our Constitution.
This vision is as old as America itself. It stems from the timeless principles of the Declaration of Independence. The equality of mankind. The existence of inalienable rights. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These principles are the foundation of a thriving society. Their implementation is directly connected to the ability of all people to realize their calling.
The principles of the Declaration are self-evident. But they are not self-enforcing. That is why the Founders gave us the Constitution. It is the mechanism that protects individual freedom and human dignity.
The Constitution’s design is everything. When most people think of it, they think of the words of the Bill of Rights. Or maybe they think of Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. Of course, these are all very important. But they are not what makes the Constitution unique.
What’s more important is the space between the words, the clash between the institutions. That is where we find the separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and the sovereignty of the American people. These are the essential restraints on government power, the external and internal controls on those who wield power over us. As the namesake of the Hamilton Award aptly said, government has been instituted “because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”
Taken together, these internal and external restraints comprise the Structural Constitution. It is on this structure that our freedom depends. The Structural Constitution is the reason that America became, and still remains, the freest and most remarkable country the world has ever known.
Unfortunately, the past century has seen the slow erosion of the Structural Constitution. It has been undermined by presidents of both parties and bipartisan majorities in Congress. Worst of all, it has been undermined by the branch of government charged with upholding it. The federal judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court, spent decades breaking down the barriers that protect our freedom.
The Federalist Society exists to right this wrong.
The federal judiciary is often the Structural Constitution’s last line of defense. It had fallen away from that noble task because it had fallen prey to ideas that are incompatible with our experiment in self-government. To solve this problem, the Federalist Society has spent nearly 40 years reviving the ideas that have long been ignored in legal circles. We have built the infrastructure on the law school campus and in the legal culture generally to revive the ideal of limited constitutional government.
We are now seeing a gradual restoration of the judiciary that recognizes and upholds the Structural Constitution.
The last four years in particular have seen a significant shift in the judicial landscape. The ideas that were for sometime far outside the legal mainstream – ideas like originalism, textualism, and judicial enforcement of the separation of powers – are now on the cusp of becoming the legal mainstream.
More than ever in my own lifetime, the Supreme Court is enforcing the limits on government power and recognizing the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism not as quaint aspirations, but as concrete obligations that underpin individual freedom. For the first time in any of our lifetimes, the Supreme Court itself is close to reviving the Structural Constitution. This is good news for the bolstering of human worth and dignity.
We are seeing similar trends with the Federal appellate courts, where in just the last 4 years, we have witnessed about a 30% increase in Constitutional jurists. And there are record-breaking trends as well in the states, with their supreme courts and state attorneys general.
What does the future hold? There is an unprecedented number of judges and a rising generation of lawyers committed to this vision. This is a renaissance in our legal culture. I am convinced this is one reason why the left is so unhinged and radical right now.
Rising generations have been trained in textualist and originalist philosophy to a much greater degree. Once they are ready for public and judicial service, the work they do, if given the opportunities, will further restore a country that respects individual freedom and human dignity.
Alexander Hamilton once said, “there is a certain enthusiasm in liberty.” Even amidst the threats and challenges and chaos we face right now, we should be joyful about what we are doing. Our work is about something much bigger than ourselves and the present moment, and what we do matters to and resonates with most Americans. They are counting on us to finish what we have started.
Thank you again for this wonderful award. I will treasure it always. Good night.