How tomorrow’s legal activists start the journey with a trip to Arizona

Blackstone Fellowship
Blackstone Fellowship

Beginning with the turn of the new century in 2000, leading law students came to Arizona in June to prepare for a summer of service. After an intense training period, they dispersed around the nation until August, when they returned to the Grand Canyon State for debriefing and career guidance.

The focus began to widen in 2007, when two overseas students also were accepted into the program, and eight of the participants went off to serve outside the United States. The general schedule remained the same, however: two weeks of training in the Valley of the Sun for these legal interns, six weeks at their assigned locations, then one week back in Arizona before returning to their law schools for the next semester.

The program is called the Blackstone Legal Fellowship. It’s a project of the Scottsdale-based, internationally active Alliance Defending Freedom, established in 1994. ADF’s mission is legal advocacy of religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family (

Explaining why his organization filled a void, Alan Sears, ADF’s president, CEO and general counsel, says it wasn’t that Christians simply had been losing in court; they weren’t even showing up at the courthouse with a well-prepared effort against such formidable foes of protected religious expression as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alliance Defending Freedom changed its name in 2012 from the Alliance Defense Fund, better to reflect its alliance-building litigation efforts. Its Web site says ADF and its allies have won 80 percent of cases litigated to conclusion, “including 38 precedent-setting victories at the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds more in the lower courts.”

ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship ( helps nurture aspiring traditionalist law students toward their professional careers. The interns through the years come from all over, ranging geographically in the U.S. from as distant as Harvard, Yale and Princeton to Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.

From 24 legal interns the first year, in 2000, Blackstone grew to 143 participants in 2013, and about 150 are foreseen for this June after a rigorous selection process that winnows away many applicants.

In addition to U.S. students, the 2013 program had 22 international interns from 10 nations, from as close as Mexico and Canada to as distant as Greece and Zimbabwe.

The program’s growth has been steady but is limited by the need to secure necessary funding each year. In 2012, an ADF official told me that he interviewed 26 hopefuls from Peru alone, but could accept only six of them because of limited funds.

In addition to its other expenses, Blackstone provides a modest stipend to dedicated interns who could do better financially if they simply went off on their own for summer work at top law firms.

As each year’s Blackstone program begins in Phoenix, the interns study under dozens of scholarly presenters who deal with such topics as history, science, ethics, jurisprudence and theology. The interns break from the classroom routine to engage in sports competitions among themselves as well as trips to Arizona’s scenic highlights and regular religious devotions.

Next, it’s off to their summer jobs around the U.S. and overseas. The Blackstone Web site says the interns “are assigned to a field placement, nationally and internationally, with various allied public-interest law firms, attorneys, law professors, think tanks, and public-policy organizations to provide a venue in which to impact the culture right now in the arenas of constitutional law, religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”

When they return to Phoenix in August to conclude, the Blackstone site says, they receive “presentations designed to provide practical career advice from judicial law clerks, elected officials, academics, congressional staff, and constitutional litigators. The interns leave not only with increased knowledge and conviction, but also with connections to other interns and faculty who will assist them throughout their education and careers.”

A theme repeated over and over by the interns is that they believed they were so alone at their liberal law schools, but Blackstone shows they needn’t feel isolated. With each year, the network of former interns grows larger. The 2013 Blackstone participants were told that more than 1,300 interns had been trained since the program began.

One woman told the closing dinner at last year’s Blackstone that “It gets hard” due to the hostile environment at her law school, but she enjoyed an “incredible” experience here: “Little did I know that the [Blackstone] program would far exceed any expectation I could possibly have… Having the opportunity has meant more to me than I could ever describe… We won’t ever forget this.”

In 2012 a woman studying at an Arizona law school told me that Blackstone is “sort of like an oasis” because its participants can see it’s “not like you’re proposing something outrageous” by having Christian or conservative thoughts while preparing to be an attorney.

Also in 2012, a recent graduate of law school in Mexico City, who returned to Blackstone that year to act as a mentor, told me, “The greatest gift I received here is knowing I’m not alone … that there are youngsters who share the same ideals.”

He added, “The arguments that I’ve learned that are based on natural law” show that basic truth is the same everywhere and is the same for all people.

Students from other countries aren’t simply sent back home for their assignments. To “cross-pollinate,” they go to different nations. Last year interns served in countries including Argentina, Chile, South Korea, India, Bulgaria, South Africa and Spain, as well as across the U.S.

As for Blackstone being put together for summer 2014, an ADF spokesman told ADI on Feb. 14: “I can tell you that it was the largest applicant pool we’ve ever had, with applicants from 95 different schools in the U.S. as well [as] applicants from 18 foreign countries. We won’t select internship placements until after the class is finalized, so I have no idea yet how many countries they will be going to for their internships.”

Worshipping the Lord of the Universe helps remind the Blackstone interns that they’re not the Lords of the Universe themselves, but they obey a higher power. Practicing humility, confessing personal sin and following a traditional moral code are as necessary as anything else on their agenda – perhaps even more so for future litigators tempted by visions of high-powered policy-making.

One of the speakers at the 2013 Blackstone was a chastened former official from the George W. Bush White House who confessed that his swelling ego and feeling of self-importance led him to plagiarize for the column he was writing for his hometown newspaper. When a reporter caught him at it, the staffer said he could only confess his transgression and resign from his big job.

“I was at fault,” he told the Blackstone interns. “There were no extenuating circumstances… I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway…

“People who are prideful and sinful should pray that they have a liberation day,” he said, adding that he felt as if a barbell weight had been lifted off him after he was called to account.

(One might compare and contrast this Republican official’s deciding to resign his job because he passed off someone else’s writing as his own in a newspaper column with the Barack Obama administration, where just about any size of lie, violation and law-breaking is laughed off, excused, and even rewarded.)

Of Blackstone’s 143 interns in 2013, 54 were women and 42 were Catholic, an ADF official said – not a majority of the participants, but a significant portion. Each year, participants from different faith traditions receive an insight into others’ beliefs.

In 2012, ADF official Jeff Ventrella told an interviewer that issues of life, conscience and religious liberty “are human interests” that aren’t confined to any particular country.

As interns that year prepared to head to their assignments around the world for the summer, Ventrella wished them well on a challenging voyage: “Ships are safe in the harbor … but you’re not designed for the harbor.”

The following year, Alan Sears, the ADF head, received a standing ovation as he concluded the summer’s Blackstone program with a nautical reference, too: “I would say go with God, and cast your nets out into the deep.”

(This article draws on my experience having reported for years on the Blackstone program for The Wanderer national weekly Catholic newspaper.)

About Dexter Duggan Religion & Politics 15 Articles
Dexter Duggan has been a weekly writer for The Wanderer, a Catholic newspaper, since 1997.