The anti-abortion conservative quietly guiding Trump's supreme court pick

Leonard Leo, who is advising Trump on his nominee, is a mild-mannered Republican who has become one of the Washington's most influential people

SOURCE:, 2018-07-06

Just 20 months ago, Leonard A. Leo's life's work appeared in jeopardy. Hillary Clinton would soon be elected president. A liberal judge would be chosen to replace Antonin Scalia, the late lodestar of American conservatism, on the supreme court. "Staring at that vacancy, fear permeated every day in that countdown to November 8," Leo recalled last year, in a speech to fellow religious conservatives. His three-decade fight to push the US judiciary to the right -- and enable a crackdown on abortion -- looked to be lost.

A political miracle interceded. Clinton narrowly lost to Donald Trump, a thrice-married former "very pro-choice" Democrat, who now proposed "punishment" for women having abortions. "What an amazing turn of events," Leo, of the conservative Federalist Society, said in his speech with a smile.

Leonard Leo gave himself no public credit. But by helping then candidate Trump put together an unprecedented shortlist of approved supreme court nominees, Leo may have secured critical support from wavering rightwingers. "It was the decisive move in the entire campaign," said Carrie Severino, an ally and Chief Counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network.

This weekend, Leo will be advising Trump on his second nominee to the supreme court, having helped the president install Neil Gorsuch to Scalia's seat last year. The new appointment, which follows the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, promises to create the court's first dependable conservative majority in half a century.

As the owlish Executive Vice-President of the Federalist Society, Leo has quietly become one of the Washington's most influential people. Carrie Severino, a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, said Leo knows the conservative legal movement "perhaps better than anyone in the country". Leo is on leave from the Federalist Society to advise Trump.

Kennedy's retirement has imperiled Roe v Wade, the court's landmark 1973 ruling that legalised abortion nationwide, which Leo and his conservative allies have long been committed to overturning. A ruling by the new court could allow states to outlaw abortion within their borders.

Amid liberal outcry and polls indicating that Americans support Roe v Wade by more than two to one, Leo has appeared keen to contain his excitement. "I don't think people should be worried about Roe v Wade or any other particular case," he told CBS last week.

But such protestations do not persuade his critics. "It's nonsense," said Michael Avery, professor emeritus at Boston's Suffolk Law School and the author of a book on the Federalist Society's rise. "These people have been pursuing a strategy for decades of chipping away at women's rights."

Leonard Leo, a 53-year-old father of six, appears in the media as the mild-mannered public face of a strident campaign to reshape the American judiciary. It is a mission that has spanned several administrations, driven by Leo and fellow devout Catholics, and bankrolled with tens of millions of dollars from unidentified conservative donors. More than a decade ago, it helped secure George W Bush's confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

"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," Ed Whelan, a conservative legal activist and commentator, said in 2016.

Working more behind the scenes is Ann Corkery, a Washington lawyer and fundraiser, who in the 1990s said she was a member of Opus Dei, the hardline Catholic order. Corkery defended the group's practice of self-flagellation. "People don't understand sacrifice, the whole idea of why anyone would inflict pain, because the modern notion is to avoid suffering," she said. Corkery did not respond to emailed questions.

Leo and his wife, Sally, have themselves donated money to a Washington-area school that states its "orientation and spiritual formation are entrusted to Opus Dei", which has not previously been reported. Leo did not respond to calls and a spokesman did not respond to emailed questions.

Brian Finnerty, a spokesman for Opus Dei in the US, said in an email that the group adheres to the church's view that "abortion is always wrong." He said: "The US bishops have been clear that Roe has been a great tragedy for this country, and that the decision should be overturned."

Ann Corkery and her husband, Neil Corkery, have taken turns as president of the Wellspring Committee, a Virginia-based non-profit that channels funds to the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), which provides the campaign's sharp edge. JCN spent $17 million on television advertising and other advocacy in support of Gorsuch and, earlier, against Barack Obama's proposed centrist replacement of Scalia, Merrick Garland.

Gary Marx, JCN's secretary and treasurer, wrote in 2012: "Should abortion be illegal? Absolutely." Ann Corkery helped form JCN and Neil formerly served as its treasurer. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they got started with funding from Robin Arkley, a conservative property developer from Eureka, California, who was friendly with Scalia.

Arkley these days makes appearances as a pundit on a local radio talkshow, where he has complained of African Americans having children out of wedlock and called for homeless people to be expelled from Eureka [California]. He referred to the 2005 hurricane in Louisiana as "Saint Katrina" because it provided an "unbelievable stimulus" to the construction industry. He also said that, given the strength of support for Obama among minorities, the notion that white people should vote for white candidates is "something we really need to explore". Arkley did not respond to emailed questions.

Wellspring, the Corkery-led non-profit that funds JCN, is not required to name its donors. It disclosed late last year that it received $28.5 million from a single contributor. The Center for Responsive Politics has said Leo plays a leading role in raising money for Wellspring. The Center also found Wellspring sent $750,000 to an obscure company that gave $1 million to Trump's inauguration fund. Leo named that company as his employer on a public filing.

Dan Goldberg, the legal director of the liberal-leaning Alliance for Justice, said this "dark money" was allowing a wealthy elite to "turn back the clock" in American society without accountability. "They are spending an enormous amount of money to erode the progress we've made in ensuring rights for women, healthcare for millions of Americans and rights for workers, LGBTQ people and people of colour," said Goldberg.

Soon after Kennedy's retirement, JCN announced it would spend an initial $1 million on television advertisements on CNN and FOX News, targeting Democratic senators facing difficult Republican challenges in November's midterms. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, will all come under intense pressure to break with their party colleagues and vote to approve Trump's court nominee.

Friends have indicated that Leo's fervour on abortion is informed as much by personal experience as by faith. Leo and his wife have a son with spina bifida and had a daughter with the condition who died. "It's a very simple one for me," Leo said of the subject to the New Yorker last year. "It's an act of force. It's a threat to human life. It's just that simple."

The likely confirmation of Trump's second nominee will mark the pinnacle of Leo's endeavours for the Federalist Society, which he [Leonard Leo] joined soon after graduating from Cornell law school in 1989. But Michael Avery, the professor and author, does not expect Leo or his allies to admit it. "They will continue complaining that they are outsiders even after achieving the most complete takeover of the courts that we have ever seen," said Avery. "They will never be satisfied."

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