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New Report Reveals Link Between Judge Aileen Cannon and Leonard Leo

Cannon was once reimbursed for a trip to Montana to attend a conference held by a school with deep conservative ties.

A new report reveals that U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, the Donald Trump-appointed Florida judge presiding over the case regarding Trump’s improper storage of classified documents, once received a luxury trip from a school backed by Leonard Leo, the conservative kingmaker of the judiciary branch.

According to financial documents reviewed by Accountable.US and reported by The Guardian, Cannon was once reimbursed for a six-day trip to a luxury lodge in Montana by George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School — a school that was named after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after he died in 2016 due to a $30 million donation organized by Leo. The purpose of the trip was for Cannon to attend the “Sage Lodge Colloquium,” a seminar held at the Sage Lodge resort and spa in 2021.

Unlike in recent scandals involving Justice Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Cannon reported the gift on her 2021 financial disclosure form. But it’s unclear why the trip was reimbursed to begin with — though it’s relatively common for judges to have trips for speaking engagements paid for, Cannon isn’t listed as a speaker or teacher in the agenda for the gathering.

There isn’t evidence that Leo funded the trip directly, and there doesn’t seem to be anything unlawful about the exchange. But the trip, and the school’s connection to Leo, is a show of Leo’s influence over the judiciary and connections with a vast network of conservative judges across the country.

The colloquium included multiple conservative seminars. One session, on “Woke Law,” was taught by an Antonin Scalia Law School professor and Cato Institute senior fellow. The reading assignments for the course included a book entitled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why This Harms Everybody, which was co-written by far right conspiracy theorist James Lindsay.

Another session was entitled “Lessons from State Administrative Law for the Reassessment of Chevron,” seemingly about “Chevron deference,” a settled precedent that allows federal agencies to interpret ambiguous portions of laws that could soon be overturned by the Supreme Court.

A six-night stay at the Sage Lodge would likely cost several thousand dollars. A stay in a typical single bed room for the same time period in 2024, for instance, would be roughly $5,600 after taxes and fees, according to the lodge’s website.

The event itself was put on by the Antonin Scalia Law School, which appears to have deep ties within the conservative judiciary movement. After Leo’s donation and the school’s rebrand in 2016, it “developed an unusually expansive relationship with the justices of the high court” as The New York Times reported in April, seemingly especially with conservative justices, though also with the Court’s liberals. The school now frequently offers teaching positions, including bespoke programs abroad, to Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, The Times found.

“By any number of metrics, Scalia Law’s closeness to the justices has coincided with a striking upswing in its fund-raising and academic standing,” the report read. “Scalia Law has hit its stride in part by capitalizing on the conservative outcry against ‘woke’ elite institutions of higher education.”

Cannon is also tied to Leo in other ways. For nearly two decades, Cannon has been a member of the Federalist Society — the far right conservative legal network that Leo chairs.

“It’s no surprise that Judge Cannon has benefited from Leo’s well-funded network. Over decades, Leo has used shady tactics to curry favor with judges at all levels in service of his ultimate goal: to force an extreme, radical agenda on Americans,” said Accountable.US senior advisor Kyle Herrig. “Ultimately, it calls into question the judge’s impartiality and who she’s serving. Is she serving the American people or is she serving Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society?”

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