New Records Illustrate Extensive Influence Wielded by Leader of Group Pushing Conservative Judicial Agenda

Soon after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced their intention to nominate and hold a confirmation vote on a replacement in the weeks before the election. They will be backed up in their efforts by an extensive network of outside groups focused on shifting the courts to the right. At the center of that network is Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the Federalist Society, who has been a key player in guiding the Trump administration’s federal judicial nominations and coordinating outside efforts to boost them.

As the Washington Post wrote last year, “few people outside government have more influence over judicial appointments now than Leo.” Not only does Leo advise the president on judicial nominations, he is the key player among the many well-funded advocacy groups that work to promote conservative judicial nominees to the public. 

New documents that American Oversight obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests illustrate the powerful role that Leo plays in the Trump administration’s judicial nominations.

On Jan. 30, 2017, the day Trump announced his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the vacant Supreme Court seat that McConnell had prevented President Obama from filling, Gary Marx, a senior adviser to the Leo-connected Judicial Crisis Network, invited “friends and allies” to a call with then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to organize around pressuring vulnerable Democratic senators to support the nominee. Leo was scheduled to speak on the call, as well as his Federalist Society colleague Jonathan Bunch, the Judicial Crisis Network’s Carrie Severino, and conservative legal activist Ed Whelan.

The Department of Justice invited a number of outside groups to participate in the call, including the National Rifle Association, the Family Research Council, the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List, and the Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. 

Documents from the Justice Department also illustrate Leo’s role in helping the Trump administration screen nominees to lower federal courts. In July 2017, a person “applying for open judgeships” emailed then-Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, noting that their “roots in the Federalist Society are deep” and that they had, “on the political level,” “sought to promote conservative principles.” The applicant noted that they had discussed their application with individuals including Leo, and that Leo had sent their materials to the relevant contact in the White House Counsel’s Office. 

In other instances, a letter recommending potential judicial nominees to Leo and Bunch ended up on file at the Justice Department.

Another document we obtained from the department shows the extent of Leo’s involvement in the nomination and confirmation process. The evening after the 2018 midterm election, in which Republicans gained two seats in the U.S. Senate, Mike Davis, the chief counsel for nominations to Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, emailed a committee staffer for Sen. Lindsey Graham: “Now that we picked up 2 or 3 seats, I’d like to push to have [redacted]. Grassley is onboard with this. Leonard Leo is fully onboard to support [redacted] from the outside, per my call with Leonard today. Would Graham be willing to talk to [redacted]?” 

Leo’s role in helping the Trump administration push the courts to the right is well-known among influential conservatives. In 2019, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s calendars show her attending the AEI World Forum, a secretive gathering for Republican luminaries hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. While the schedule for the event wasn’t publicly released, documents we obtained through FOIA show that Chao was scheduled to attend a panel on “Reshaping the Courts: A View from the Inside” featuring McConnell (who is also Chao’s husband), Leo, and John Yoo, the Bush administration attorney known for his role in authorizing the torture of “War on Terror” detainees.

The Post found that between 2014 and 2017, the network of groups tied to Leo brought in more than $250 million in undisclosed donations. The Center for Responsive Politics has reported that the most prominent of those groups, the Judicial Crisis Network, received a single contribution of $17 million, three-quarters of its fundraising for the year, before the 2018 fight to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the court; that same year, it passed hundreds of thousands of dollars on to other groups including the National Rifle Association. In 2017, two Leo-connected groups paid more than $2 million to a Virginia-based LLC that that year donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Leo’s influence is felt outside of federal judicial nominations. One of President Trump’s reported top choices for the Supreme Court seat, federal appeals court judge Barbara Lagoa, was named to her previous position on the Florida Supreme Court after Leo flew to the state to interview her and other finalists for Gov. Ron DeSantis. Leo’s network has also been quietly working to promote restrictions on voting rights in advance of November’s elections.

Calendars we have obtained through FOIA show Leo having personal meetings with high-level Trump administration officials including Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (for whom Leo later helped coordinate a trip to Rome), Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan, and high-level State Department officials.