Leonard Leo is an American lawyer and the executive vice president and a board member of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. The Federalist Society is funded by right-wing foundations, including Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Charles G. Koch Foundation, to move America's legal establishment and jurisprudence to the right. Leo has been a leader in the effort by the Judicial Crisis Network, the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity group, the Tea Party Patriots, and other libertarian and far right groups and funders (including the secretive Wellspring Committee) to advance a conservative judiciary at the federal and state level. Read more on these ties below.
For decades, Leo has worked quietly behind the scenes to organize a right-wing take over of the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent years, he has mobilized millions of dollars in secret dark money for massive PR efforts and grassroots mobilization to block President Obama's 2016 pick for the court, Merrick Garland, as well as to advance President Trump's picks of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. He was also instrumental in the selections of Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the high court.
As of July 6, 2018, the Federalist Society website states that Leo is on leave as he prepares to spearhead the campaign for Brett Kavanaugh, who holds extreme views on choice, birth control, and the Affordable Care Act in line with Federalist Society positions. Leo served in several government positions, including as President George W. Bush's advisor on Catholic issues in the 2004 presidential campaign. President Bush later named him to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is reportedly a member of the right-wing Catholic organization Opus Dei.
Leo is primarily known for his extreme right-wing views and his effective mobilization of right-wing money sources to impact the court in recent decades. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese stated, "He has contact with literally dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people throughout the country who are very knowledgeable about the federal judiciary." As the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, Leo was instrumental in the selection and confirmation processes for Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch. Following the announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, numerous reports confirmed Leo's active involvement in the search for a replacement (see below).
In addition to his leadership at the Federalist Society, Leo exercises significant control over the Judicial Crisis Network, which campaigns for right-wing judges, as well as the Beckett Fund law firm, which brought the Hobby Lobby case allowing private employers to deny contraceptive coverage to female employees, pursues right-wing causes in the name of "religious liberty." He also plays an active role in admissions and hiring at the George Mason Law School, which he was active in helping rename in memory of Justice Antonin Scalia.
- 1 The Judicial Crisis Network, the Wellspring Committee, and Dark Money
- 2 Assistance to the Trump Presidential Campaign
- 3 Influence on the Appointment and Confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch
- 4 Influence on Appointment of Justice Anthony Kennedy's Replacement
- 5 Anti-Abortion Views
- 6 Anti-Islamic Views
- 7 Official Positions with Associated Groups
- 8 Biography
- 9 Articles and Resources
- 10 References
The Judicial Crisis Network, the Wellspring Committee, and Dark Money
Formerly known as the Judicial Confirmation Network, the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) is a “social welfare” 501(c)(4) organization founded in 2004. The organization originally attempted to push through President George W. Bush's judicial nominees and then turned its tactics to blocking President Barack Obama's selections during his administration. Leo was instrumental in the group's founding and continues to wield considerable influence over its activities. JCN is currently led by Carrie Severino, a former clerk to Justice Thomas and close ally of Leo. Tom Carter, the former associate of Leo at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated, "JCN is absolutely Leonard's group. Carrie was working out of the Federalist Society office. Federalist Society staff babysat her kids as the JCN project was launched... The JCN is Leonard Leo's PR organization -- nothing more and nothing less."
Taking advantage of its social welfare organization status, JCN has spent millions across the country to influence the elections of judges and attorneys general as well as judicial appointment and confirmation processes. JCN is a close ally of the Republican Attorneys General Association. In 2014, JCN was RAGA's 3rd largest donor and contributed $1 million for its 2014 campaign to win attorneys general positions in Nevada, Colorado, and other states.
Leo's efforts to ensure that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito were confirmed engaged the dark money spending power of JCN. In 2005 and 2006, Leo and the Federalist Society worked with JCN to coordinate radio and online ads as well as on grassroots efforts to support the confirmation of the right-wing justices.
To block the appointment of Barack Obama's choice, Merrick Garland, and support the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch, Leo helped coordinate the JCN's expenditure of $17 million. The campaign was highly effective in allowing Gorsuch, the Federalist Society's pick, to take the place much thought rightly belonged to Merrick Garland.
Leo is also closely involved with the Wellspring Committee, a large dark money 501(c)(4) organization based in Virginia. The Wellspring Committee contributed more than $23 million to JCN in 2016. That year, the Wellspring Committee received more than $32 million in donations, with $28.5 million coming from a single anonymous donor. JCN and Wellspring share numerous connections, such as Neil Corkery, who previously served as both Wellspring's president and JCN's treasurer.
In 2016, Wellspring also contributed $100,000 to the Federalist Society, and JCN and Wellspring together provided almost 80 percent of funding for the Rule of Law Project, a conservative dark money nonprofit that listed Leo as a director in tax filings. The Center for Media and Democracy was the first to report that the mysterious Rule of Law Project spent big in a close Wisconsin Attorney Generals race in 2014. In 2016, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, and the IRS urging an investigation and alleging that the dark money group made false representations to the IRS.
Leo is also connected to Wellspring through a little-known company called BH Group, LLC. The LLC gave the Trump Inaugural Committee $1,000,000 and has "an apparent connection to a conservative law firm that specializes in campaign finance compliance." According to Open Secrets, BH Group also received $750,000 from Wellspring in 2017.
According to Maplight, Leo is also the president of America Engage which is described as "the latest dark money organization to spring up in the Federalist Society’s orbit since Trump was elected." Around the time of Gorsuch's confirmation, American Engage contributed $950,000 to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action and $700,000 to the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.
Assistance to the Trump Presidential Campaign
When Donald Trump was seeking the Republican nomination for President, Leo was an adviser to the campaign. After Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly during the campaign season in February 2016, Leo was key to the development of a list of 25 candidates that could fill Scalia's vacancy. Trump hoped releasing names that had been vetted and approved by Leo would reassure conservatives skeptical of his commitment to right-wing ideology. The release of right-wing anti-abortion and corporatist judges is credited with playing a large role in Trump's eventual victory. Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network stated that it was "the decisive move in the entire campaign."
In addition to helping Trump draft a list of candidates, Leo assisted the Trump campaign by mobilizing grassroots groups to oppose President Obama's efforts to fill the vacancy. The Tea Party Patriots group was one of Leo's key allies in arguing that a "lame duck" president should not have the right to appoint a justice during the final months of his presidency.
Influence on the Appointment and Confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch
Leo's work with the Trump campaign quickly translated into an effort to secure the appointment and confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Leo spearheaded the activities of dozens of advocacy groups that ran ads, launched social media campaigns, and mobilized the far-right in support of Gorsuch. The Washington Times stated, "It is no exaggeration to say that Neil Gorsuch very likely would not be a Supreme Court justice today had it not been for Leonard Leo's tireless efforts over the past year." Gorsuch had long been affiliated with the Federalist Society. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Gorsuch described his relationship with Leo's organization, stating, "I have attended and spoken at some of the organization's gatherings. I have also sometimes spoken to individual Federalist Society chapters at various law schools."
Influence on Appointment of Justice Anthony Kennedy's Replacement
Immediately following the announcement that Justice Anthony Kennedy would retire from the Supreme Court on June 27, 2018, Leo began marshaling resources to find a replacement that would solidify right-wing control. During the weekend of July 6, 2018, Leo entered into private consultations with President Trump to aid his selection of a replacement.
Much of the discourse after Kennedy's announcement surrounded the new appointments' views on a woman's right to choose and Roe v. Wade. While a hard-line anti-choice activist, Leo has tried to deny that the selection would be a threat to the landmark decision. On Sunday, July 8, 2018, Leo stated that the assertion from Democrats about the precarious position of Roe v. Wade was "a scare tactic, and speculation more than anything else." Leo continued, "My goal, first and foremost, has always been to find people to serve on the court who believe in the constitution as it's written. And that's really ultimately what drives the conservative legal movement... I'm very confident with this president's enthusiasm and with Leader McConnell's enthusiasm that they can get anybody confirmed."
Leo, a Catholic, is widely known to be driven by anti-abortion views in his work to shape the federal judiciary. With the looming replacement of Justice Kennedy, many are concerned that the replacement will lead to Roe v. Wade being overturned.
Regarding the landmark decision, Leo stated, "I don't think people should be worried about Roe v. Wade or any other particular case." However, critics of Leo's many years influencing the judiciary dismissed his public statements claiming Roe v. Wade is not under attack. Michael Avery, professor emeritus at Boston's Suffolk Law School and author of a book on the Federalist Society titled The Federalist Society How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals, said, "These people have been pursuing a strategy for decades of chipping away at women's rights." Conservative legal scholar Ed Whelan said of Leo, "No one has been more dedicated to the enterprise of building a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade than the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo."
Leo is a member of the hard-line Catholic organization Opus Dei. Brian Finnerty, a spokesman for Opus Dei, said the group holds the position that "abortion is always wrong," adding that "the U.S. bishops have been clear that Roe has been a great tragedy for this country, and that the decision should be overturned."
Describing Leo's activist philosophy, Tom Carter, Leo's former media relations director when he was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated, "He figured out twenty years ago that conservatives had lost the culture war. Abortion, gay rights, contraception—conservatives didn't have a chance if public opinion prevailed. So they needed to stack the courts."
Although Leo has steadfastly supported Catholocism and promoted its values in public policy and law, he has also displayed a bias against Islam. While serving as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Leo was accused of leading a culture of anti-Muslim bias that permeated the agency. Former policy analyst Safiya Ghori-Ahmad filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the USCIRF in 2009 alleging that she was fired because of her Muslim faith and Muslim advocacy activities.
While serving as chairman of USCIRF, Leo was active in the opposition to the construction of an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. The Park51 or Cordoba House project was dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque" by right-wing critics. Leo was director of Liberty Central, a Tea Party-related group organized by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Liberty Central organized a petition campaign against the Cordoba House project.
Official Positions with Associated Groups
- Board Member, Reclaim New York (a non-profit funded by the Mercer Family and promoting implementation of their preferred policies in New York State)
- Board Member, The Catholic Information Center
- Board Member, International Center on Law, Life, Faith and Family
- Board President, National Catholic Prayer Breakfast
- Board Member, Ethics and Policy Center
- Board Member, Catholic University of America
Leonard A. Leo was born in 1965 on Long Island, New York to a Catholic family. After attending Cornell University, he interned in the office of Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). After attending law school, also at Cornell, he returned to Washington and clerked for federal appellate judge A. Raymond Randolph of the D.C. Circuit.
As an attorney, Leo is admitted to the bar in New Jersey, Washington District of Columbia, United States Supreme Court, United States Court of Appeals (Federal Circuit), and United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia Circuit). He is also a member of the board of directors for the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Youth Leadership Foundation, Men's Leadership Foundation, and Catholic Action Network, and a member of the Sovereign Order of Malta.
Articles and Resources
Related PRWatch Articles
- David Armiak, "15 Judges Object to State Funds for Federalist Society Conference Where WI AG Brad Schimel Plugged Campaign, Praised Hate Group," May 11, 2018.
- David Armiak, "Donors Trust, the Right-Wing Secret Money Machine, Doled Out $66.7 Million in 2016," March 22, 2018.
- Arn Pearson, "Dark Justice," April 6, 2017.
- Mary Bottari, "Rule of Law Project Breaks the Law While Backing Wisconsin AG Schimel, Complaint Alleges," June 16, 2016.
- PRWatch Editors, "Oklahoma AG Releases 7,564 Pages in Response to CMD Request," February 22, 2017.
- Daily Beast, "The Secrets of Leonard Leo, the Man Behind Trump's Supreme Court Pick," July 8, 2018.
- New Yorker, "The Conservative Pipeline to the Supreme Court," April 27, 2017.
- The Guardian, "The anti-abortion conservative quietly guiding Trump's supreme court pick," July 6, 2018.
- Washington Examiner, "Inside the mind of Leonard Leo, Trump's Supreme Court right-hand man," January 28, 2018.
- CBS News, "Leonard Leo: Unassuming figure with big voice on high court," July 3, 2018.
- Business Insider, "The most powerful recruiter in the world: How one man handpicked one-third of the Supreme Court," April 10, 2017.
- Federalist Society, Leonard A. Leo, organizational biography, accessed July 6, 2018.
- Jon Swaine, The anti-abortion conservative quietly guiding Trump's supreme court pick, "The Guardian", July 6, 2018.
- Associated Press, Leonard Leo: Unassuming figure with big voice on high court, CBS News, July 3, 2018.
- Jay Michaelson, The Secrets of Leonard Leo, the Man Behind Trump’s Supreme Court Pick, The Daily Beast, July 9, 2018.
- Viveca Novak and Peter Stone, The JCN Story: Building a Secretive GOP Judicial Machine, "Open Secrets Blog," March 23, 2015.
- Andrew Perez and Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, Tax Returns Identify Dark Money Organization As Source Of GOP Supreme Court Attacks, Huffington Post, November 22, 2017.
- Mary Bottari, Rule of Law Project Breaks the Law While Backing Wisconsin AG Schimel, Complaint Alleges, PRWatch.org, June 16, 2016.
- Jordan Muller, Pruitt landed wife a job at dark money group backing political allies, "Open Secrets Blog," June 15, 2018.
- Andrew Perez [Conservative Legal Interests Funneled $2.7 Million To NRA, Freedom Partners Around Gorsuch Fight https://maplight.org/story/conservative-legal-interests-funneled-2-7-million-to-nra-freedom-partners-around-gorsuch-fight/] Maplight Jan 7, 2019
- Jenny Beth Martin, Federalist Society's Leonard Leo laid groundwork for Neil Gorsuch, "Washington Times", May 19, 2017.
- Jeffrey Toobin, The Conservative Pipeline to the Supreme Court, The New Yorker, April 17, 2017.
- Tim Haines, Leonard Leo: Conservatives Want Judges Who Will Interpret The Constitution As Written And Not Play Politics, Real Clear Politics, July 8, 2018.
- Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman, Brett Kavanaugh Is Trump's Pick for Supreme Court, New York Times, July 9, 2018.
- Michelle Boorstein, Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias, Washington Post, February 17, 2010.
- David Corn and Nick Baumann, “Ground Zero Mosque” Foes Bankrolled By Feds, Mother Jones, August 23, 2010.
- Rob Galbraith, Mercer family front groups attack universal healthcare bill in New York State, Eyes on the Ties, May 24, 2017.
- The Catholic Information Center, Staff and Board of Directors, organizational website, accessed July 14, 2018.
- International Center of Law, Life, Faith and Family, Organizational Structure, organizational website, accessed July 14, 2018.
- National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, About, organizational website, accessed July 14, 2018.
- Becket names “Lion of the Law” Leonard Leo 2017 Canterbury Medal, BecketLaw, March 16, 2017.
- Leonard A. Leo, Prabook, accessed July 5, 2018.