Leonard Leo’s Dark-Money Web is Helping Fill Courts With Far-Right Judges. What’s the End Game?

Photo credit: Supreme Court of the United States

A new Washington Post investigation sheds light on the power-building network of secretive organizations connected to Federalist Society Vice President Leonard Leo and the hundreds of millions of dollars that his funders have funneled virtually anonymously into hardball politics to fulfill Leo’s mission of packing the federal courts with judges who share his right-wing legal ideology.

Leo, a key player in the right wing’s decades-long project to achieve ideological domination over the federal judiciary, helped candidate Donald Trump win over skeptical Republicans by having Trump promise to pick Supreme Court justices from a list Leo put together.  Leo has repeatedly taken leave from the Federalist Society to help steer right-wing judicial nominees, including Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, through the confirmation process.

The Post investigation, which was published online Tuesday, includes reporting on the flow of dark money throughout Leo’s web of influence and into his own pockets, something Leo is adamantly not interested in talking about. He doesn’t waste his time talking about money and politics, Leo told Post reporters, “because what I care about is ideas.” In fact, Leo refused to answer the Post’s questions about the money that fuels his efforts, claiming unconvincingly, “I’m not particularly knowledgeable about a lot of it.”

The story prompts two important questions that it doesn’t fully answer: Why are Leo’s funders pumping so much money into his machine? And what does it mean for the American people in the long run?

“For two decades, Leo has been on a mission to turn back the clock to a time before the U.S. Supreme Court routinely expanded the government’s authority and endorsed new rights such as abortion and same-sex marriage,” the Post notes. One of its accompanying videos notes that the conservative legal movement, which draws support from both the evangelical and libertarian-leaning wings of the right-wing movement, is “changing the idea that government should play a central role in American life, an idea that stretches back to the 1930s.”

Amanda Hollis-Brusky, a professor and author of a book on the Federalist Society, appears in one of the Post’s videos, in which she says “the courts can either make our country safer or more equal or more just, or really thwart the attempts of political majorities at the state level to do so.”

While the Post’s presentation includes brief soundbites about Trump judges threatening Roe v. Wade, upholding Trump’s ban on transgender servicemembers, and undermining organized labor, it does not fully explain the expansiveness of the right-wing legal movement’s goals and the urgency of the threat this movement poses to the very nature of American government and society.

What right-wing legal and political activists are seeking is nothing less than a federal judiciary that will roll back roughly 100 years of American court rulings. They want to undermine church-state separation, eliminate a woman’s right to choose, and do away with marriage equality for same-sex couples. But that’s just a start. They want to pull the constitutional plug on New Deal and Great Society social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare, dismantle administrative agencies that regulate corporate behavior to protect clean air and water as well as worker and community safety, and bring back an interpretation of the Constitution that is focused on states’ rights and would dramatically limit the ability of the federal government to promote the common good and protect the rights of individuals and the well-being of our communities.

Leo and his colleagues have understood this as a long-term fight. “Rome wasn’t burned in a day,” some Federalist Society members are reportedly fond of saying. More than 20 years ago, Federalist Society events were focused on “undoing the New Deal.”

Early in the Trump administration, right-wing activists were already salivating at the prospect of Trump filling hundreds of federal judicial vacancies (many created by Republicans “slow-walking” Obama nominees) with the help of a Republican Senate willing to rubber stamp his nominees.

Since then, Trump has named a record number of judges to the federal appeals courts and Republican senators have confirmed many people who have no business serving as federal judges to lifetime positions. As People For the American Way’s “Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” series documents, the results have been a disaster for Americans who rely on the courts to uphold their rights.

Things can and will get worse. Republican staffers from the House, Senate, and White House told activists at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 2017 Road to Majority conference, which was after Gorsuch’s confirmation but before Kavanaugh’s, that another Trump Supreme Court nominee in the Gorsuch mold “is really going to change America” and create “epic, titanic shifts.” At the same conference, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia cited the New Deal and Great Society in declaring, “We are in a war for the future of this Republic.” But Perdue also went back even further, declaring, “The great progressive experiment of the last 100 years, with bigger and bigger government, has failed, period.”