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Far Right Billionaires Are Waging a War to Capture State Courts

Florida’s abortion ban is just one recent outcome of right-wing billionaires’ effort to capture state courts nationwide.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading "Protect the right to choose" during a march at the U.S. Capitol on April 15, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

As state courts continue to hear cases related to abortion bans and protections across the country, following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, these institutions have come even more into the crosshairs of a few ultra-wealthy extremists who want to codify and impose their personal religious beliefs on all of us via binding law.

In April and May of this year, Arizonans and Floridians saw their reproductive rights limited by decisions handed down by their respective state supreme courts, but that isn’t the end of the story. Democrats in Arizona have since spearheaded legislation that Gov. Katie Hobbs (D-Arizona) signed to repeal the draconian 1864 near-total abortion ban their court deemed constitutional. And Floridians will likely decide in November on a ballot initiative that would guarantee them broader abortion access, counteracting their supreme court’s greenlighting of a near-total abortion ban.

Some state courts, like those in Arizona and Florida, have assailed our reproductive and other rights, but others have also played a crucial role in protecting our freedoms, like in Pennsylvania, Montana, Kansas, and elsewhere. The new key role of state courts in determining the state of reproductive justice for its citizens post-Roe has made these institutions an even larger target for regressive forces seeking to roll back our freedoms.

A new report by True North Research demonstrates that some of the key national actors who helped hand-pick and back the nominations of the right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court — who are likewise tied to groups litigating court cases to turn back our rights — have also sought to capture state courts to further advance their regressive agenda.

Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society and the Florida Supreme Court

Right-wing attorney Leonard Leo is the central figure in the long-term campaign to capture the federal and state judiciaries and to install people on the bench who oppose reproductive freedom and corporate regulation. Leo co-chairs the board of the Federalist Society, a group created over 40 years ago with the help of then-professor Antonin Scalia and others to create pathways to power for “conservative and libertarian” lawyers. For years, Leo was the executive vice president of the Federalist Society.

In 2019, The Washington Post detailed how Leo’s network raised more than $250 million to capture the U.S. Supreme Court and change the law, a figure that True North tallied as nearly $600 million from 2014-2021. It later became public that, in 2020, Leo received the largest known political advocacy donation in history when right-wing billionaire Barre Seid transferred $1.6 billion to the “Marble Freedom Trust.”

[State courts] have come even more into the crosshairs of a few ultra-wealthy extremists who want to codify and impose their personal religious beliefs on all of us via binding law.

Leo’s role as Trump’s judge-picker is well documented and known by the public. However, lesser known is Leo’s long-standing effort to derail merit selection at the state level and control who sits on various states’ highest courts, as covered in True North’s new report.

Florida is no different. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed five of the state Supreme Court’s seven sitting justices and Leo has played an outsized personal role advising DeSantis on his judicial appointees, just as Leo hand-selected for former President Donald Trump three of the sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices who comprise part of the court’s far right majority. (Leo also helped install the other two.) A 2019 review by People’s Parity Project State Courts Manager Billy Corriher found that Florida was one of eight states with a Supreme Court dominated by justices with close ties to the Federalist Society.

Groups that have close Leo ties were also amicus filers or represented amicus filers in the Florida abortion case, such as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and its 501(c)(3) Charlotte Lozier Institute; Concerned Women for America; Holtzman Vogel (representing American Cornerstone Institute); and First Liberty Institute (representing National Institute of Family and Life.)

The groundwork laid for DeSantis to remake the Florida Supreme Court began in 2001, when Gov. Jeb Bush, a Federalist Society contributor who has publicly defended Leo, signed into law legislation that gave the governor more control over the state’s judicial nominating commission, diminishing the power of the state bar over the court’s composition. While a push to fully eliminate merit selection failed, “the result [was] that Florida’s judicial selection process has shifted away from the collaborative [state bar]-governor process, which has been the hallmark of merit selection, to a system closer to a gubernatorial appointment process,” according to a 2006 research article in The Justice System Journal. Before 2001, the Florida Bar Association (FBA) appointed three lawyers to every nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), of which there were 26 in the state (one for each circuit and district court of appeal and the state supreme court). The governor appointed three of the other JNC commissioners (lawyers or non-lawyers), and the six commissioners jointly selected by the governor and the FBA chose the other three commissioners. For vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court and the five district courts of appeal, as well as interim vacancies on state trial courts, the JNC would then vet applicants and create a slate of three to six candidates for the governor to select from to fill the vacancy.

The Justice System Journal study also explained that the post-2001 selection process skewed far to the right-wing, “as perhaps intended.” Zero judges chosen by the Judicial Nominating Commission reported Federalist Society membership right before the shift, and eight self-reported Federalist Society membership, in addition to membership in other far right religious groups, by January 2004.

Leonard Leo’s Long-Standing Effort to Capture State Courts

Leo’s influence over the Supreme Court in Florida and other states is the fruit of a long-standing effort by Leo and the Federalist Society, part of which has been assailing merit selection of judges, in order to install far right judges in key state-level positions of power.

Anti-abortion billionaire Dick Uihlein, who inherited the Schlitz brewing fortune, waded deep into the effort to capture state courts with the 2022 launch of his own state-focused super PAC, Fair Courts America.

In the 1990s, Leo’s work at the Federalist Society included efforts to undermine the American Bar Association (ABA), a legal group full of corporate lawyers that assesses the quality of judicial candidates based on their professional qualifications. In early 2001, Leo and the Federalist Society succeeded in getting George W. Bush to bounce the ABA from evaluating federal judicial candidates before nomination, at the same time as the Federalist Society was beginning to play an informal but powerful role in screening potential nominees.

Within weeks Leo and the Federalist Society also began to focus on assailing how justices on state Supreme Courts were chosen. In March 2001, the Federalist Society co-sponsored a forum on judicial selection to attack merit selection of judges titled “Picking State Judges: Who and How?” Of course, now we know the answer to the questions he posed: Who? By Leo. How? With the dark money resources he would later accumulate through the access provided by his post at the Federalist Society.

From this work Leo began to heavily target the “Missouri Plan,” the signature merit selection system for judges that was adopted by more than 30 states to protect the judicial selection process from undue and rank partisanship, where candidates for the state’s highest court are vetted by an independent judicial nominating commission, which then sends the governor a slate of well-qualified potential appointees to pick from. The Federalist Society would subsequently create a “Judicial Elections White Paper Task Force,” which issued findings attacking merit selection and nonpartisan elections.

An illuminating example of the Federalist Society’s state court work is in Missouri itself. In 2007, Leo and his allies lobbied Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, pressuring him to “return the names” of the judicial candidates chosen by the merit selection committee who were two Democrats and a moderate Republican, as reported by ProPublica. After the governor held firm, Leo began backing a group dubbed “Better Courts for Missouri” led by a recent law-school graduate and former clerk for a Federalist Society judge (who was also cousin of right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh) named Jonathan Bunch. (Bunch is now president of Leo’s for-profit CRC Advisors and Leo’s potential successor at Marble Freedom Trust, which was funded by the Leo-tied Wellspring Committee and the former Judicial Crisis Network.) Bunch’s operation sought to replace the state’s three-person judicial selection commission with seven people selected by the governor and approved by the right-wing legislature.

Bunch also filed a ballot initiative petition to give the governor control of the judicial selection commission and supported other legislative changes, all of which failed. But Bunch was hired to work with Leo at the Federalist Society on state court reforms nationally. From 2008-2010, Bunch was director of state courts at the Federalist Society.

He was also later tapped by Leo to help direct some of Leo’s outside operations while they worked together at the Federalist Society, resulting in Bunch receiving substantial amounts of money. Ultimately, when Leo left the Federalist Society in 2020, Bunch went with him to CRC Advisors, a for-profit PR firm that has worked with Leo for years, including on his state court efforts.

CRC Advisors is now the beneficiary of millions in transfers of cash from nonprofit groups that Leo directs Marble money and other major funding to, which then turn around and hire CRC Advisors. This has led to complaints and an investigation, although Leo, through spokesmen, has stated that he has done no wrong.

While right-wing special interests, many tied to Leo, continue to assail merit selection in states like Kansas and Oklahoma, big money also continues to play an increasingly large role in states that elect judges.

Who Are the Other Bad Actors Trying to Capture State Courts in 2024?

In 2024, the U.S. is likely to see some of the most expensive state judicial elections in history. Right-wing special interests have their sights set on state court elections in states like Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina and Ohio, among others, where courts continue to be a political battleground and will have the final say over millions of Americans’ access to reproductive freedom, fair elections, fair maps, fair trials, and more.

One of the most prominent groups spending to influence state judicial elections is the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which deploys ads in state court races via its “Judicial Fairness Initiative.” The Initiative’s sole funder is RSLC. Leo does not work for RSLC, but his Concord Fund (formerly the Judicial Crisis Network) has been one of the largest funders of RSLC in recent years, contributing more than $10 million since 2014. The group has frequently deployed a “million-dollar cash bomb” tactic, running a last-minute, scorched-earth style campaign in state judicial races against judges who often cannot raise enough money, or have enough time to counter such last-minute attacks designed to aid the Initiative’s preferred candidates.

Beyond Leo, billionaires Dick Uihlein, Charles Koch and Jeff Yass will likely continue to heavily target these state judicial seats in order to impose their personal agendas as binding law, as they have in past elections.

Anti-abortion billionaire Dick Uihlein, who inherited the Schlitz brewing fortune, waded deep into the effort to capture state courts with the 2022 launch of his own state-focused super PAC, Fair Courts America (FCA). According to True North’s report, FCA has raised more than $10 million from Uihlein and his Restoration PAC. It used this war chest to influence a myriad of state court races and also to attack progressive prosecutors in Florida and other states. FCA spent heavily in the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Supreme Court races in 2023 (the FCA-backed candidates lost in both states). FCA has already spent over $600,000 earlier this year in the Alabama Supreme Court Republican primary backing failed challenger Bryan Taylor, who said that “embryos were human beings whose lives begin at fertilization” and thus entitled to the same rights as minor children.

True North’s report also details fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch’s active role in influencing state courts. In addition to funding RSLC and the Federalist Society, Koch’s Americans for Prosperity — the flagship group launched by Koch as part of his dizzying network of tax-exempt groups — has spent big to influence state supreme courts in Florida, as well as in Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

Leo, Koch, Yass, Uihlein, and the other regressive forces seeking to impose their personal religious beliefs as law know that our reproductive and other rights will now be won or lost in state courts, as they were in Florida. The public should too.

Lisa Graves, True North’s executive director, contributed to this story.

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