Harvard Law School students were startled on Wednesday when, during a class held over Zoom, a student brandished his gun on-screen. The student, Chance Fletcher, is the president of the HLS chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal network. Its longtime leader, Leonard Leo, advises President Donald Trump on judicial nominees; a majority of Trump’s appellate judges are members of the group.
Several of Fletcher’s classmates immediately noticed the firearm, which at first he appeared to be cleaning. One student who immediately saw the weapon told Slate Fletcher then began “cocking it back and looking inside the barrel” and “practicing to make sure it clicks.”
“He probably had the gun on-screen for at least 15 minutes,” this student said. “At one point, the barrel was facing his face. It didn’t look like he’d ever held a gun. I was worried I was going to watch my peer accidentally shoot himself. None of us had any way to know the gun was loaded or unloaded.”
The class, Criminal Procedure: Adjudication, has about 40 students and is taught by professor Adriaan Lanni. On Wednesday, Lanni had invited Marjorie Allard, chief judge of the Alaska Court of Appeals, as a guest speaker. According to two students, Fletcher brandished his gun while Lanni and Allard were speaking, though neither appeared to notice. The class was discussing sentencing enhancements. (Every student who spoke with Slate stressed their admiration for Lanni and expressed disappointment that she was subjected to Fletcher’s behavior.)
HLS prohibits firearms on campus but has no clear policy regarding the brandishing of weapons during Zoom class. All five students who spoke to Slate did so on the condition of anonymity for fear that HLS might punish them for revealing details of a class. The school did not return a request for comment, nor did Fletcher. He did, however, tell the Daily Caller that he was “cleaning one of my handguns so that I could go shoot vermin in my Grandmother’s yard after classes,” and “never intended for my cleaning of a firearm to be a disruption.”
The HLS chapter of the Federalist Society routinely pushes for more conservative speakers, professors, and viewpoints on campus. In October, a group of students affiliated with the chapter demanded “an expansion of HLS’s clinical offerings” to include more conservative advocacy. Law school clinics typically focus on helping underserved and indigent clients. But these students sought clinics that contribute to well-funded Republican causes, including a “Pro-Life Clinic” to support abortion restrictions and a “Second Amendment Clinic” to combat gun safety laws.
Many members of the HLS Federalist Society chapter rise quickly through the ranks of the national organization, where they will rub elbows with federal judges, politicians, and influential attorneys. The Harvard chapter is one of the most well-connected student groups on campus. A number of Trump’s judges were members during their time at HLS, including the president’s latest nominee, 37-year-old Justin Walker. Trump appointed Walker to a federal district court after he made 162 media appearances defending Brett Kavanaugh following his nomination to the Supreme Court. (Walker previously clerked for Kavanaugh.) Trump now seeks to elevate Walker to a powerful federal appeals court. The American Bar Association rated him “Not Qualified.” His trajectory illustrates the paths to power available to ambitious members of the chapter.
Students didn’t buy Fletcher’s claim that he was just cleaning his gun and didn’t mean to distract from class. “Fletcher tries to be controversial,” a student in the class told Slate. “He always participates to say something conservative and rude. It’s a classic Federalist Society persona. Everyone else rolls their eyes when he speaks because it’s going to be intentionally provocative and adds nothing to the conversation.” This student said that, when the class still met in person, Fletcher “sat with other Federalist Society students in a corner. They were always snickering to each other when people commented on any kind of progressive criminal justice reform,” like fixing “racial disparities in sentencing.”
A different student told Slate that they felt the display was “particularly outrageous because we had a guest in the class,” Allard. “It’s sort of threatening in a way that felt really inappropriate.”
Judge William Pryor of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has hired Fletcher as a clerk after graduation. Reached by email Monday night, Pryor told Slate, “I have no comment about this matter.”
Fletcher’s classmates were unsurprised that he was able to obtain a prestigious clerkship. “The Federalist Society people don’t play by the same rules that the rest of the school plays by,” one of his classmates told Slate. “There was an unspoken understanding even among the 1L class that while the rest of us were required to wait two years to ask for recommendations and apply for clerkships” under the uniform clerkship hiring plan, “many of our 1L peers” in the Federalist Society “already had them lined up.”
“It is known that it’s much easier for people in the Federalist Society to get prestigious clerkships—just as a matter of numbers,” a different student in Fletcher’s class said. (Because HLS keeps its clerkship record secret, Slate could not independently verify this claim, which was echoed by four other students.) “There’s so much less competition. When you have a judge appointed by Trump who’s rated Not Qualified by the American Bar Association, most moderate or left-wing students would hesitate to apply to a clerkship with them. Conservative students might lack those compunctions.”
In December, HLS’ Office of Career Services put up a post on its “clerkship blog” that it had “received zero applications” for clerkships with two Trump judges, “which seems like wasted opportunities.” Among those judges were Lawrence VanDyke, a longtime anti-LGBTQ activist, and Sarah Pitlyk, who opposes abortion, surrogacy, and fertility treatment. Both were rated “Not Qualified” by the ABA.
Another classmate of Fletcher’s agreed. “There are just so many über-conservative judges on the federal bench,” this student explained, “and proportionally not that many conservative law students who are qualified for judicial clerkships. So all the conservative students are going to get really pedigree jobs in the federal judiciary if they want to. It’s almost guaranteed. Then they’ll have this shiny new résumé line.”
Fletcher is “on a trajectory to be a potential Gorsuch clerk,” the student continued, referring to Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is known for hiring hyperpartisan clerks. “And maybe a federal judge.”