Inside Story of How Leonard Leo Built a Machine That Remade the American Legal System
Andy Kroll, Andrea Bernstein  and  Ilya Marritz (ProPublica) 12 October 2023
The party guests who arrived on the evening of 23 June 2022, at the Tudor-style mansion on the coast of Maine were a special group in a special place enjoying a special time. The attendees included some two dozen federal and state judges — a gathering that required U.S. marshals with earpieces to stand watch while a Coast Guard boat idled in a nearby cove.
Caterers served guests Pol Roger reserve, Winston Churchill’s favorite Champagne, a fitting choice for a group of conservative legal luminaries who had much to celebrate. The Supreme Court’s most recent term had delivered a series of huge victories with the possibility of a crowning one still to come. The decadeslong campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade, which a leaked draft opinion had said was “egregiously wrong from the start,” could come to fruition within days, if not hours.
Over dinner courses paired with wines chosen by the former food and beverage director of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., the 70 or so attendees jockeyed for a word with the man who had done as much as anyone to make this moment possible: their host, Leonard Leo.
Short and thick-bodied, dressed in a bespoke suit and round, owlish glasses, Leo looked like a character from an Agatha Christie mystery. Unlike the judges in attendance, Leo had never served a day on the bench. Unlike the other lawyers, he had never argued a case in court. He had never held elected office or run a law school. On paper, he was less important than almost all of his guests.
If Americans had heard of Leo at all, it was for his role in building the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. He drew up the lists of potential justices that Donald Trump released during the 2016 campaign. He advised Trump on the nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Before that, he’d helped pick or confirm the court’s three other conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. But the guests who gathered that night under a tent in Leo’s backyard included key players in a less-understood effort, one aimed at transforming the entire judiciary.
Many could thank Leo for their advancement. Thomas Hardiman of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled to loosen gun laws and overturn Obamacare’s birth-control mandate. Leo had put Hardiman on Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist and helped confirm him to two earlier judgeships. Kyle Duncan and Cory Wilson, both on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, both fiercely anti-abortion, were members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, the network of conservative and libertarian lawyers that Leo had built into a political juggernaut. As was Florida federal Judge Wendy Berger, who would uphold that state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Within a year of the party, another attendee, Republican North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. (no relation), would write the opinion reinstating a controversial state law requiring voter identification. (Duncan, Wilson, Berger and Berger Jr. did not comment. Hardiman did not comment beyond confirming he attended the party.)
The judges were in Maine for a weeklong, all-expenses-paid conference hosted by George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, a hub for steeping young lawyers, judges and state attorneys general in a free-market, anti-regulation agenda. The leaders of the law school were at the party, and they also were indebted to Leo. He had secured the Scalia family’s blessing and brokered $30 million in donations to rename the school. It is home to the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State, named after the George H.W. Bush White House counsel who died this May. Gray was at Leo’s party, too. (A spokesperson for GMU confirmed the details of the week’s events.)
The judges and the security detail, the law school leadership and the legal theorists — all of this was a vivid display not only of Leo’s power but of his vision. Decades ago, he’d realized it was not enough to have a majority of Supreme Court justices. To undo landmark rulings like Roe, his movement would need to make sure the court heard the right cases brought by the right people and heard by the right lower court judges.
Leo began building a machine to do just that. He didn’t just cultivate friendships with conservative Supreme Court justices, arranging private jet trips, joining them on vacation, brokering speaking engagements. He also drew on his network of contacts to place Federalist Society protégés in clerkships, judgeships and jobs in the White House and across the federal government. He personally called state attorneys general to recommend hires for positions he presciently understood were key, like solicitors general, the unsung litigators who represent states before the U.S. Supreme Court. In states that elect jurists, groups close to him spent millions of dollars to place his allies on the bench. In states that appoint top judges, he maneuvered to play a role in their selection. Continue Reading…
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