Leonard Leo, executive director of the Federalist Society and an icon in the conservative nonprofit world, is credited with helping every conservative member of the Supreme Court – from Clarence Thomas forward – survive their confirmation hearings.
On May 21, the Washington Post went after Leo with a piece headlined, “A conservative activist’s behind-the-scenes campaign to remake the nation’s courts” – subhead: “Leonard Leo helped conservative nonprofits raise $250 million from mostly undisclosed donors in recent years to promote conservative judges and causes” – by Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boburg.
“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,” O’Harrow and Boburg write. “Now, as President Trump’s unofficial judicial adviser, he told the audience at [a] closed-door event in February that they had to mobilize in ‘very unprecedented ways” to finish the job.”
In an accompanying piece, O’Harrow and Boburg point to their top five findings from the longer piece.
“Leo has connections to a group of nonprofits that raise millions from people whose identities are not publicly known,” they wrote, as if that’s not how most nonprofits operate.
It then points out Leo’s “role behind the scenes is not readily apparent,” and dramatizes this by pointing out groups affiliated with Leo “funded an influence campaign” to help Republican nominees, and that it gave money to Independent Women’s Voice, a conservative women’s group.
It then asserts the Federalist Society does not advocate for specific judicial nominees, but some groups that do have office space nearby – and that Leo now makes enough to live in McLean, Va., and own another home in Maine.
Slate, on the other hand, sees Leo as an existential threat to all Americans. In “Trump’s Judge Whisperer Promised to Take Our Laws Back to the 1930s,” Jamal Greene writes that when Leo asserts an embrace of limited constitutional government, “you should listen. And you should be alarmed.”
“As Leo knows, constitutional law was very different in the 1930s than what it is today. And in a word, it sucked.”
In the 1930s, Greene writes, “the courts were fully complicit in maintaining the country as a thoroughgoing ethnocracy, governed openly for the benefit of white men. Public schools in 21 states were racially segregated by law. ‘Separate but equal’ schools had been affirmed by the Supreme Court as late as 1927 …”
Greene claimed Republicans do not accept Brown v. Board of Education as settled law and that conservative jurists don’t care about women because Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, the two Trump appointees to the Court, recently “dissented from the court’s temporary blocking of a Louisiana law that would have left the entire state with just a single doctor able to perform abortions.”
Finally, Greene pointed to the case of a 14-year-old boy executed for the murders of two white girls in South Carolina in 1944. “He was questioned alone, without his parents or a lawyer present, and convicted by an all-white jury after a two-hour trial and 10 minutes of deliberation. He wasn’t allowed to appeal. He had to sit on books to fit into the headpiece of the electric chair.”
Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review commented on Greene’s piece. He opened with Leo’s quote about standing at the threshold of “a newfound embrace of limited constitutional government” that hasn’t “really happened since probably before the New Deal.”
“That’s what Leonard Leo … said at a recent gathering of conservatives,” Ponnuru wrote.
“Jamal Greene writes in Slate that what Leo wants is for courts to undo Brown v. Board of Education, bring back poll taxes, allow coerced confessions and abolish Social Security and the minimum wage.
“Seems like the only fair and sensible interpretation!”