For the second time in less than two years, President Donald Trump is poised to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. But he’s not the one remaking the nation’s most powerful court for generations of Americans. It’s Leonard Leo.
Leo, executive vice president of The Federalist Society, a national organization of conservative lawyers, has played a central role in the selection and confirmation of three Supreme Court justices: John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.
And on Wednesday, Leo announced that he’s taking leave from his job, effective immediately, to personally advise Trump on a replacement for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Trump plans to pick someone from his previously released list of 25 potential Supreme Court nominees ― a list that Leo put together for him, at Trump’s request. If all goes as planned, Leo, 53, will have helped secure his fourth justice on the court by the early fall.
No president in modern history has had this kind of influence in reshaping the Supreme Court. Leo doesn’t singularly deserve credit for putting these judges on the court, of course; it takes teams of people to get a nominee through.
But long after Trump is out of the White House, Americans will be feeling the effects of a court stacked not by any particular president but, in large part, by Leo. “It’s incredible,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond and an expert on judicial nominations.
“Certainly, he’s had an outsize influence for any one person. I know President George W. Bush relied on him a fair amount for two nominees, and in this administration, I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like it.”
His strategy is simple enough: Send Federalist Society speakers to law schools around the country and engage students. Foster networking between young conservatives and society members, who can help students land clerkships with judges who are also members. Host local and national events for people to socialize and essentially audition for jobs in corporate law firms or in government.
Over time, members, now part of a massive conservative network of about 70,000 people, help each other get powerful jobs in government or on federal courts ― including the Supreme Court.
“Anyone who is anyone who is a conservative lawyer is a member of The Federalist Society,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative judicial advocacy group with close ties to Leo and that helped get Gorsuch confirmed.
Five Supreme Court justices have benefited from Federalist Society membership: Gorsuch, Alito, Roberts, Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia. Many of Trump’s nominees to U.S. district and circuit courts were vetted by Leo. Some, like Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who has suggested that Roe v. Wade was “an erroneous decision,” are now on Trump’s shortlist for a Supreme Court seat.
Of the 25 people on Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks, all but one ― Margaret Ryan, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ― are either Federalist Society members or have been involved with its events.
“We’re at the point where almost the entire Supreme Court is something Leonard Leo was active in in this process,” laughed Severino. “There isn’t anyone who knows the conservative legal movement as well as him.”
The Federalist Society maintains that it takes no official positions on policies; rather, it advocates principles, like the duty of the judiciary, to “say what the law is, not what it should be.” But there’s a clear pattern to the judicial nominees being fed by the group: They are young, conservative and have records of being incredibly anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights and anti-voting rights.
For progressives, it’s been a nightmarish perfect storm: Trump has huge numbers of U.S. court seats to fill, thanks to Senate Republicans denying so many seats to President Barack Obama; the White House is outsourcing the selection of judicial nominees to The Federalist Society; and the Republican-led Senate is eager to confirm all of them.
So far, Trump has confirmed one Supreme Court justice, 20 district court judges and a whopping 21 circuit court judges ― more than any president has confirmed by this point in office and nearly one-eighth of all circuit court seats.
“Selecting nominees from The Federalist Society ensures that the right will cement the hold they have on the judiciary for the next several decades,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, a left-leaning judicial advocacy group.
“What they have in common is an exceptional hostility to the progress that’s been made in this country since the New Deal, whether that’s to workers, civil rights litigants, women, consumers or people who care about the environment,” Aron said. “Nominees being confirmed by the Republican Senate today would have been deemed unqualified even under President George W. Bush because of their extremism.”
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about how central Leo is to Trump’s Supreme Court selection process. The Federalist Society did not respond to a request for an interview with Leo.
White House officials might chafe at the idea that it is Leo, and not them, driving Trump’s judicial selections. Maggie Haberman of The New York Times conveyed as much in a Monday tweet about the role of the White House legal team.
“Clarifying something from yesterday - the Federalist Society and Leonard Leo are not synonymous when it comes to the Trump list of 25 prospective SCOTUS nominees,” she tweeted. “Leo developed this list with Don McGahn, the WH counsel who is hugely important to this process.” Maybe. But it can’t hurt that McGahn is a Federalist Society member.
Our Purpose (The Federalist Society)
Law schools and the legal profession are currently strongly dominated by a form of orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society. While some members of the academic community have dissented from these views, by and large they are taught simultaneously with (and indeed as if they were) the law.
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. The Society seeks both to promote an awareness of these principles and to further their application through its activities.
This entails reordering priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law. It also requires restoring the recognition of the importance of these norms among lawyers, judges, law students and professors. In working to achieve these goals, the Society has created a conservative and libertarian intellectual network that extends to all levels of the legal community.
Who are the Federalist Society? Inside the right-wing group picking Trump’s Supreme Court judges: How a group for libertarian law students founded in 1982 has come to dominate the judicial nomination process.
When Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed as Supreme Court Justice, as he almost certainly will be, it will mean that five of the nine Supreme Court justices are members of the Federalist Society, a network of conservative and libertarian lawyers that has become one of the most powerful groups in America today.
The most enduring legacy of the Trump administration may be its remaking of the courts: in addition to two Supreme Court appointees (Trump’s other pick, the conservative Neil Gorsuch was appointed last January), Trump inherited 107 other judicial vacancies. According to New York Times figures, President Ronald Reagan inherited 35 unfilled judgeships and President Barack Obama had 54.
Trump has effectively outsourced the task of filling these seats to the Federalist Society, and in particular to its executive vice-president, an ultra-conservative, devout Catholic named Leonard Leo, who has helped transform the lawyers network into, as the New Yorker describes it, a “conservative pipeline to the Supreme Court”. So how did the Society, which began as a students’ group, become so powerful – and what does it stand for?
The Federalist Society was started in 1982 by conservative law students at Yale and the University of Chicago who wanted to create a counterbalance to what they saw as the liberal orthodoxy of law faculties around the country.
Its first faculty advisers were Robert H. Bork at Yale (who was a Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court but who was rejected by the Senate) and Antonin Scalia (who served on the Supreme Court from 1986-2016, having been appointed by Reagan).
The organisation rapidly spread to campuses across the country, spurred by funding from wealthy conservative donors such as the Koch brothers, and later sprung professional chapters too.
That the Federalist Society has such an active student and professional body makes it different from many other interest groups, which tend to be dominated by Washington staff, says Steven Teles, the author of Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law. It means that Leo has a very “dense intelligence network”, Teles told me when we spoke on the phone.
As well as building links between conservative lawyers, the Federalist Society’s talks and events have provided a way for it to spread and develop its ideas and approach to judicial philosophy. The Society grew up with its first student members, as they began taking up senior jobs in government and the judiciary, providing the Federalist Society with a network of like-minded lawyers that extends right up to the Supreme Court and the President (the White House lawyer Don McGahn is a member of the Federalist Society) and across campuses, companies and local courts around the country.
As well as being well-organised and well-funded, the Federalist Society’s ideological purity makes it a formidable political force, Teles argues. Its members are united by their judicial philosophy rather than any partisan affiliation to the Republican Party.
On its website it describes these principles as “that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be”, which entails “reordering priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law”.
As this abstract wording suggests, the range of opinions held by members of the Federalist Society is quite broad though they share a similar approach to the law. The main tension within the group is between those who believe their primary function should be constraining the federal judiciary and those who believe their role is to empower the federal judiciary to enforce what they see as America’s founding principles, Teles says.
“In general they promote these kinds of ideas: they are in favour of small government as opposed to big government, they oppose most government regulation of business and property, their core value is private property and the ability of a private property owner to do what he or she wants with their private property, they are strong believers in American exceptionalism and believe the US has a special role to play in the world and that people in the US are somehow a special kind of people, they would rather have things done by the state than federal government and they are strong on religious freedom but religious freedom of a sometimes extreme nature – arguing, for example, that religion is an excuse for not complying with anti-discrimination laws,” says Michael Avery, the co-author with Danielle McLaughlin of the book, The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals.
The Federalist Society’s influence rose with the presidency of George W Bush – all the federal judges that were appointed by Bush were either members of the Federalist Society or were approved by the group – but it has never been more powerful than it is today.
Not only does the large number of judicial vacancies present them with an unprecedented opportunity to remake the courts, but Trump has also given Leo more power than any previous president over judicial nominations.
At the Trump administration’s request, Leo drew up a list of 25 potential Supreme Court nominees for the president’s consideration, which included Kavanaugh. At the same time, the influence exerted by the Senate on the nomination process has decreased.
“It used to be that Republican Senators played a much more important role in judicial selection than they do now, so ordinary party patronage mechanisms used to be more important. But I think this ideological network that we associated with the Federalist Society has clawed away more and more power from that senatorial role over time,” says Teles. “And it’s clearly the case that Trump has been willing to completely subcontract this over to these conservative judicial networks.”
One of the most effective checks on Trump has been the US courts, who have challenged some of the administration’s most egregious policies, from the Muslim ban, to child separations, the rescindment of DACA and environmental deregulation. In addition to the threat to women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights, a judicial system dominated by right-wing libertarians might have responded very differently to Trump’s executive orders.
“It's important for all Americans to understand that the extreme right wing, the extreme conservatives, are much better organised, much better financed, and have a much better idea of what they're about than the liberals or progressives do. The liberals or progressives need to wake up and take a look at what’s happening at the other end of the ideological spectrum and figure out a way to get their own house in order, because liberals and progressives have been losing ground now for the last almost 40 years, and even to this day they have not come with either an effective set of ideas or an effective organising principle that allows them to make this a fair contest,” Avery tells me.
In the absence of an effective liberal alternative to the Federalist Society, the best hope for liberals is that they will win back control of Congress at the Midterms, he says. “If the left-wing and progressives can't capture the legislative branch and turn the popular will into their way of thinking, we’re in for a rough ride for the next several years if not decades.”