A new investigation finds that groups associated with prominent anti-abortion judicial activist Leonard Leo — who has had a hand in the nomination of every sitting conservative Supreme Court justice — have poured tens of millions into significant state court races over the past two decades, demonstrating the depth of Leo’s campaign to pack U.S. courts with far right judges.
Grid News has found that Leo’s network of dark money and political groups, through cash influxes from sources like the Koch family, has injected at least $31 million into at least 42 races in 15 states since 2010, seeking to influence races for state Supreme Courts and other high-level state judgeships.
State judges at these levels often make crucial decisions on policies like abortion bans and voting rights. In recent years especially, far right politicians have increasingly seen state courts as roadblocks to implementing the extremist anti-democratic laws that they have passed through conservative-dominated state legislatures.
Campaign contributions for state court races are particularly effective, as judicial candidates typically spend much less to get elected than in other similarly high-profile races.
“The return on investment is really good for state Supreme Court election,” Michael Kang, Northwestern University law professor, told Grid News. “And there’s less money still spent on judicial races than legislative or executive contests. So they’re cheaper, and the money has a big impact, because there’s not that many seats at stake.”
At the same time, public disclosure requirements for campaign contributions are relatively lax, and voters may not be able to see who gave to a campaign until after judges are sworn in. And, even when such donations are disclosed, corporations and other deep-pocketed donors can hide their names behind groups like those in Leo’s extensive dark money network, meaning that their true identities could be hidden forever.
Grid News found that much of Leo’s influence in this sphere comes from the Judicial Fairness Initiative (JFI), a dark money group largely funded by the Republican Party’s state campaign arm, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). In recent years, the RSLC’s top funder was a group led by Leo, the Judicial Crisis Network.
The stated purpose of the JFI is “halting [the] transformation” of the legal system to “an advocate for the liberal political agenda” — though, ironically, it appears to be operating with the interest of turning courts into far right support systems.
In just four years, between 2014 and 2018, the JFI spent over $10 million in state judicial elections, and is currently operating with the goal of injecting more funds into judicial elections than ever. In a statement earlier this year, the JFI said it was “committed to spending more resources on state Supreme Court races in 2022 than in any year in the committee’s history.”
The investigation lends further evidence to the fact that today’s extremist Supreme Court and growing fascist political environment didn’t come out of nowhere; conservative activists have spent decades on their efforts to pack courts at both the federal and state levels, with Leo at the forefront of many of these campaigns.
While Leonard Leo may not be a household name, the 57-year-old anti-abortion activist is one of the most influential people in modern politics. Through his extensive dark money network and high-level political connections, Leo has had a major hand in the nomination of every sitting right-wing Supreme Court justice, who ruled this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade and erode other crucial rights.
For instance, all three of former President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominations came from Leo’s handpicked list of potential Supreme Court candidates, after Leo formed a close relationship with top Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway.