Leonard Leo Pushed the Courts Right. Now He’s Aiming at American Society.

After leading efforts to put conservatives on the bench, the activist has quietly built a sprawling network and raised huge sums of money to challenge liberal values.

26 November 2022

Chris Hayes of MSNBC: “When you see the news about a 10-year-old forced to flee her state to terminate a pregnancy from her rapist, think about Leonard Leo as the man who brought that state of affairs about. He is the guy pulling the strings in the background. And yet, no one really even knows his name.” (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Catholic fundamentalist Leonard Leo is one of the most powerful figures in the United States. He’s put five justices on the Supreme Court: Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts. A sixth, Clarence Thomas, is one of his closest friends. In fact, a few years ago Thomas joked that Leo was the “No 3 most powerful person in the world”.

He believes that the federal government should play a smaller role in public life and religious values a larger one. Leo remains an obscure figure to much of the US public. According to Slate, “Over the last three decades, Leo brilliantly created an interconnected series of institutions and firms designed to fundamentally reshape the American judiciary and in turn American society.”

Leo is a member of the secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta, a Catholic order that functions as a quasi-independent sovereign nation with its own diplomatic corps, United Nations status, and a tremendous amount of money and land. He is also a board member of the Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center (CIC). Opus Dei is a Catholic lay group described as one of the world’s “most powerful and politically committed” secret societies.

In a most fascinating and revealing article, the New York Times reports:

Mr. Leo had begun quietly building the new operation in 2016, but its scope and intensity ramped up substantially when he stepped down in January 2020 from day-to-day leadership of the Federalist Society and shifted his attention to building the conservative advocacy and donor network full time.

The network is made up of a loosely affiliated and evolving set of nonprofit and for-profit entities, through which Mr. Leo helps raise huge sums of money from donors, steers the cash to groups promoting issues he supports and then shapes the resulting initiatives.

To help administer the enterprise, the network’s nonprofits, including the 85 Fund and Concord Fund, have paid millions of dollars in consulting fees to private firms in which he has a financial interest, like CRC Advisors and the BH Group, enriching Mr. Leo in the process.

The network’s nine core groups have spent nearly $504 million on policy and political fights, including grants to about 150 allied groups, between mid-2015 and last year, with roughly half of that spending since mid-2019, according to an analysis by The Times of dozens of tax filings. And his efforts have been turbocharged by an unusual $1.6 billion infusion from a Chicago electronics manufacturing magnate in late 2020 that was revealed by The Times this year, giving Mr. Leo the cash to match his ambitions going forward.

The Guardian reports:

As the conservative lawyer Ed Whelan wrote six years ago in the National Review: “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.”

In 2005, George W Bush nominated Harriet Miers, his deputy chief of staff, for a vacant seat on the supreme court. She was widely regarded as a weak candidate in any case, but when conservatives turned on her, and Miers withdrew, Leo saw to it that she was replaced by a figure far more acceptable to the right and opponents of abortion, Samuel Alito.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the most outspoken critics of dark money’s influence on politics, told the Guardian earlier this year that was a turning point.

“It was at that point that the grip of this little donor elite and Leo, its Federalist Society operative, really took hold. Justice Samuel Alito was the product of that and he has proven himself on the court as being a faithful workhorse for that dark money corporate rightwing crew,” he said.

According to ProPublica, “Leo derives immense political power through his ability to raise huge sums of money and distribute those funds throughout the conservative movement to influence elections, judicial appointments and policy battles.”

According to tax records, Leo’s network has funneled those hundreds of millions into ad campaigns and right-leaning groups. The Judicial Crisis Network — which is now called the Concord Fund and is headed by a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and Leo associate named Carrie Severino — has spent tens of millions airing ads during Supreme Court confirmation fights.

The group’s fundraising took off in 2016, when it led a campaign to block Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland’s confirmation. That year, Leo’s network received a $28 million infusion from a single anonymous donor. Leo and his network long refused to say who is paying for their advocacy campaigns.

Leo’s network has worked closely with Senate Republicans and has showered them with cash as well, recently donating $9 million to a dark money group affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

While Leo is best known for his influence on the Supreme Court, he and his network have also worked to shift the balance of power throughout the judiciary — in federal district and appellate courts, and state supreme courts, too.

At the state level, the network funds groups supporting conservative gubernatorial and legislative candidates. Leo’s nonprofits and their subsidiaries have recently pushed states to tighten voting laws, opposed the teaching of critical race theory in schools and financed organizations pressing states to remove millions of Americans from the Medicaid rolls.

But now, with Seid’s largesse, Leo has nearly four times the amount he raised over 16 years at his disposal and ambitions to match.

Another fascinating and detailed article written in 2018 by the Daily Beast reports:

“Leonard Leo was a visionary,” said Tom Carter, who served as Leo’s media relations director when he was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “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.”

Amazingly, said Carter, Leo has succeeded in this mission with few people taking notice.

“The Christian right has been written about a lot, but hardly anyone talks about the Catholic right,” Carter said. “Four Supreme Court justices—they’re more successful than anybody: the NRA, the Israel lobby, Big Pharma, no one else has had that kind of impact.”

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Leo was the “No 3 most powerful person in the world”

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