In 1976, when I was still in college and the world was young, a 43 year-old Orrin Hatch was first elected to the Senate. In part thanks to strong support from Ronald Reagan, who came close to defeating Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, Hatch defeated three-term incumbent Frank Moss. This was fitting, since it turned out Hatch's victory was a harbinger of the imminent Reagan Revolution.
Senator Hatch was far down the Senate hierarchy, having never before held elective office. So one of his committee assignments was the Judiciary Committee. That committee was widely viewed as undesirable, as one of its primary responsibilities is judicial nominations, which require a lot of work and are not particularly helpful to anyone’s reelection. The assignment however proved fateful. Senator Hatch would proceed to play a major role in the confirmation of all the conservative Supreme Court Justices who were appointed until his retirement in 2018, and even in the nomination of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom he recommended to President Bill Clinton. The reason he was so important is that everyone knew Senator Hatch could carry a brief, drawing on his keen intelligence and his trial lawyer skills to make the points he planned to make and to improvise where improvisation was needed. Thus he ended up as the committee’s workhorse on many Supreme Court nominations, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s, and the failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork.
Orrin Hatch was a loyal Republican, but he was also his own man. He was also unusually honest – sometimes in ways that his colleagues might not always appreciate, as when he might give what they thought was an overly candid assessment of the prospects of a particular piece of legislation. He was a man of his word. He was willing to look for principled compromise. (Sometimes, maybe, a little too willing, in the view of some critics, but mostly not.) As a result, he was a key player on an enormous amount of consequential legislation.
Senator Hatch played a critical role in the early days of the Federalist Society, which held its first student symposium just as he was starting his second term. One of his top aides, Steve Markman, was the first chair of our D.C. Lawyers Chapter. Senator Hatch agreed early on to become Chairman of our Board of Visitors, lending gravitas to an organization consisting primarily of very young lawyers and law students. He chaired that Board for over 30 years. He spoke at many of our national programs, including the final National Lawyers Convention before he retired from the Senate. His death took place on the 40th anniversary of our first student symposium.
The Federalist Society grew up with Orrin Hatch. He will be greatly missed.
Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.