RI chapter of Federalist Society launching this week

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Federalist Society, an influential right-leaning legal group, is gaining a Rhode Island outpost.

Will Wray Jr., an attorney in the Providence office of Donoghue Barrett & Singal, told WPRI.com he’s spent the past month and a half laying the groundwork for a new Rhode Island Lawyers Chapter of the organization that will hold its first event Thursday.

“I think we’re going to pack a big punch for a little state,” Wray said.

The Federalist Society was founded in 1982 to counter what its conservative- and libertarian-minded organizers saw as a general liberal tilt in the nation’s legal community. Its prominence has grown to the point that two U.S. Supreme Court justices – Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito – both addressed its national convention last fall.

“What the Federalist Society provides … is an ability to bring resources, contacts and national ideas and national speakers to the state, to open up conversations in which orthodoxy has prevailed,” Wray said.

“I don’t even know that Rhode Island’s a particularly partisan state or closed off to ideas from the conservative or libertarian perspective,” he said. “But it’s kind of an echo chamber in here, and so the Federalist Society just allows you to bring national talent to the state and to have really interesting conversations.”

Wray, 27, graduated from the Roger Williams University School of Law in 2013 and served as president of its active student Federalist Society chapter during his time there. In 2012, while Wray was president, the Roger Williams group was nominated for most-improved student chapter.

The experience at Roger Williams was part of what led Wray to found the professional chapter.

“Frequently at our law school events you’d get a sizable contingent of people who violently disagreed with the Federalist Society, and that’s what made it fun – that’s what made it interesting,” he said.

The new Rhode Island chapter’s first event is a discussion of professional licensing – “You Can’t Do That (Without a License)” – that will pit Clark Neily of the libertarian Institute for Justice against Bruce McIntyre, the president of the Rhode Island Bar Association and director of the Office of Program Integrity at the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Wray said the discussion is a timely one, coming on the heels of a February U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a state dentist board could be sued on antitrust grounds because it’s controlled by dentists. Closer to home, Gov. Gina Raimondo has called for the state to repeal nearly three dozen occupational licenses following an Eyewitness News report on their economic effects.

“It seems like such an obvious thing, that in order to protect people from shoddy practitioners the thing you have to do is have the state come and look at, are they safe or not safe?” Wray said. “And I think that’s been used time and time again by all sorts of professionals/cartels to kind of reduce competition.”

The event is Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at Donoghue Barrett & Singal’s office on Cedar Street in Providence.

Rhode Island already has a major Federalist Society connection: Steven Calabresi, one of the group’s co-founders, is a Providence resident and a visiting professor at Brown University. Wray said Calabresi has “contributed plenty of resources and advice” to the nascent local group.

Wray also credited the influence of John Tomasi, a political theorist at Brown whom he met as an undergraduate. “John really taught me how to articulate the libertarian cause in a heavily Democratic environment,” he said.

Wray said there was apparently an effort to organize a Rhode Island Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society roughly a decade ago, but it never came to fruition. He’s hoping the Thursday event will help him recruit other individuals to help run the chapter, and expects it will host events once every month or two.

The American Constitution Society, a liberal group formed in 2001 as a counterweight to the Federalist Society, has a student chapter at Roger Williams but no state chapter for lawyers in Rhode Island, according to its website. But Anthony Sinapi, president of the school’s Student Bar Association, said the liberal group has been defunct there for at least two years.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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