- Carolyn Kaster/AP
Few people outside of elite legal circles know who Leonard Leo is.
But Leo, the executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, has likely done more than any other person to shape the Supreme Court and the federal bench – and as a result, the future of law and policy in the United States.
As the longtime leader of the most powerful network of conservative lawyers in the country, Leo is “a convener and a networker” who finds and cultivates influential Republican lawyers and judges, a recent New Yorker story said.
Last spring, Donald Trump called on Leo to produce a list of Supreme Court nominees that the campaign would make public as a way to expand the Republican candidate’s appeal among conservative voters – something no presidential campaign had done before.
Leo told The New Yorker that Trump gave him relatively loose guidelines. Trump wanted candidates who were well qualified, “respected by all, not weak,” and would “interpret the Constitution the way the Framers meant it to be.”
So Leo put together a list of nominees that included 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, who was sworn in as the Supreme Court’s newest justice on Monday, filling the seat of the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last year.
This is not the first time Leo has successfully shepherded a conservative judge onto the Supreme Court. Under President George W. Bush, Leo was key in facilitating the nominations of John Roberts, now the court’s chief justice, and Samuel Alito, another conservative justice, in part by organizing public-relations campaigns to promote them, as he did with Gorsuch.
Leo, 51, has spent his 26-year legal career at the Federalist Society, whose goal is to promote free-market principles and limited government. Many of its members have strong religious beliefs, like Leo, who is a devout Catholic, according to The New York Times.
The society was founded in 1982 by three law students at the University of Chicago and Yale who were advised by Scalia, then a professor at Chicago, and Robert Bork, a law professor at Yale. Bork’s nomination in 1987 to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan was rejected by the Senate.
The group quickly found strong financial support in the form of powerful conservative donors, including Charles and David Koch and the Mercer family, which has donated large amounts to Trump’s campaign and helped found the far-right website Breitbart News. These days, the society’s funding also comes from corporations including Google and Chevron.
Thirty-five years later, the Federalist Society continues to cultivate its large membership among the law profession’s youngest members.
“The key was to figure out how to develop what I call a ‘pipeline’ – basically, where you recruit students in law school, you get them through law school, they come out of law school, and then you find ways of continuing to involve them in legal policy,” Leo told The New Yorker.
The society’s power and influence are unmatched by any similar liberal organization – its budget is more than three times as much as that of the American Constitution Society, its left-leaning counterpart, according to The New Yorker.
While the Federalist Society describes its membership as “pro-Constitution” originalists committed to literalist interpretations of the law, liberals see the group as having an activist anti-government agenda and “propagating an approach to understanding the Constitution that conveniently always led to conservative outcomes,” Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society, told The New Yorker.
Over the next four years, Trump will likely have more federal court openings to fill than any president in the last 50 years, including between one-third to one-half of all appeals court judgeships.
And because two of the Supreme Court’s liberal justices are over 75, Leo may get the chance to tilt its ideological balance with another nomination.
“There will be an opportunity for a transformation of the federal bench,” Leo told The Times in March.