The Federalist Society is one of the largest and most influential conservative legal organizations in the U.S.
The Federalist Society is one of the largest and most influential conservative legal organizations in the U.S. Leonard Leo, the organization’s longtime vice president and current vice chair, has used his position in the Federalist Society to reshape federal and state courts. Most notably, the group is connected to the last five Supreme Court nominees appointed by Republican presidents and its membership includes numerous individuals who were instrumental to the events on January 6, 2021.
The Federalist Society was founded in 1980 by three law students at Yale University and at the University of Chicago in response to what they perceived as the “pervasive liberalism of America’s law schools.” The organization was established as a nonprofit in 1982 and expanded to include chapters at law schools across the country.
The Federalist Society was created as the “ideological counter-revolution” to the Supreme Court’s decisions over the past thirty years that expanded civil liberties. Between 1954 and 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of civil rights advocates in the areas of abortion, birth control, racial integration, and voting rights. Republican-appointed justices sided with liberal justices in many of these cases, opting to exercise “judicial restraint.”
In response to the Supreme Court’s liberal shift, members of the Federalist Society wanted to create “a new kind of judicial activism” and “were not shy about demanding that the courts take the lead in restoring the rightful order.”
By 1983, the society had chapters in over a dozen law schools. The group continued to function primarily as an organization for law students until the early 1990s, when conservative activist Leonard Leo helped transform the organization into the powerful judicial group that it is today.
Conservative activist Leonard Leo has been credited with transforming the Federalist Society from primarily a student organization into the enormously influential group it is today.
Leonard Leo is the longtime former vice president of the Federalist Society, and is an important figure in right-wing legal activism. In 2020, Leo stepped down as executive vice president of the Federalist Society to join CRC Advisors, although he stayed on as FedSoc’s co-chair.
Leo has been called “arguably the most powerful figure in the federal justice system” as the leader of a “network of interlocking nonprofits” that aggressively support conservative judges. The Federalist Society plays a critical role in Leo’s network, cultivating conservative judicial nominees who will interpret the law in ways that are ideologically aligned with the group.
Leo has personal and professional ties to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is an original faculty member of the Federalist Society and a frequent speaker at the organization’s events.
CRC Advisors, a public relations firm founded in 2020 by Leonard Leo and his longtime associate, Greg Mueller, evolved out of Mueller’s existing conservative communications firm CRC Strategies, which formerly assumed the names CRC Public Relations and Creative Response Concepts. Virtually all of Leo’s nonprofit groups, including the Federalist Society, have paid CRC for public relations work over the years. The Federalist Society has paid Creative Response Concepts over $9 million since 2014.
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,576,767.00||2020|
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,636,482.00||2019|
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,645,780.00||2018|
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,539,499.00||2017|
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,356,297.00||2015|
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,329,457.00||2014|
Eugene Meyer has served in a leadership role for the Federalist Society for over 30 years, and over that period he has overseen the organization’s vast expansion.
C. Boyden Gray is an attorney, lobbyist, and heir to a tobacco fortune through his grandfather Bowman Gray Sr., the president and chairman of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Since 2017, Gray has been a director of America Engaged.
Gray has multiple connections to Charles and David Koch and their affiliated groups. Gray served as the co-chair and a board member for Citizens for a Sound Economy, an early Koch group focused on deregulation which would later split into Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity. As recently as 2013, he was a board member of FreedomWorks, where he exerted influence over the Tea Party Movement.
Gray was influential in the push for deregulation during the Reagan and Bush administrations. While working under Reagan, Gray wrote the original Executive Order 12291 (later re-numbered as EO 12866), requiring all government agency rules and regulations to undergo a cost-benefit analysis and White House review. Some progressives have denounced cost-benefit analysis as a weapon used by “small government ideologues and corporate interests” to stymie regulatory safeguards. An analysis from the Center for American Progress found that cost-benefit analysis is effectively used as “an excuse for slowing regulation under progressive administrations—an excuse that is quickly discarded when it conflicts with their deregulatory goals.” The order Gray authored has been “affirmed in one way or another by every president since.”
Gray has also worked as a staunch advocate for deregulation for climate and tobacco industry-funded groups such as the Alliance for Reasonable Regulation.
During the last year of the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appointed Gray as Special Envoy for European Union Affairs and Eurasian Energy at the Mission of the United States to the European Union.
Gray’s concern for proper “risk-versus-benefit” analysis stems from his involvement with the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the larger risk analysis field, which “is not broadly accepted as a science in itself.” As counsel in the George H.W. Bush administration, Gray worked on a presidential executive order aimed at “bringing more scientific rigor and political accountability to the process of health, safety, and environmental regulations.” Gray enlisted Harvard academic John D. Graham of the Harvard Group on Risk Management Reform to provide advice and counsel on the presidential order. While the political will for the order briefly subsided amidst the 1992 presidential campaign, momentum for deregulation remained and in 1994, Gray secured a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to fund the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
Gray also had an outsized influence in judicial nominations during both Bush administrations. During the George W. Bush administration, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) approached Gray to organize a team to lead upcoming judicial nomination fights. Gray subsequently assembled “the four horsemen,” which included himself, attorney Jay Sekulow, former-Reagan attorney general Ed Meese, and then-Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society Leonard Leo. In 2002, Gray founded the Committee for Justice (CFJ), ostensibly to help push George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. CFJ is still active today and regularly files amicus briefs supporting conservative causes in Supreme Court cases, such as Sackett v. EPA, which threatens to significantly limit the EPA’s regulatory powers over water pollution. That case is scheduled for argument on October 3, 2022.
Edwin Meese III was the U.S. Attorney General during the Reagan administration. He has been affiliated with a number of conservative nonprofit groups, including Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and Capital Research Center. He was also the recipient of the Bradley Prize from the Bradley Foundation.
While working as chief of staff for then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan, Meese was instrumental in calling for a controversial crackdown on student protestors at the University of California, Berkeley that resulted in the death of one student. While serving as attorney general during Reagan’s presidency, Meese was investigated for his role in facilitating the construction of an Iraqi oil pipeline during the Iran-Iraq War. He was also a notable player in the Iran-Contra Scandal.
John Roberts, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice
Antonin Scalia, Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and original faculty advisor
Samuel Alito, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Neil Gorsuch, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Amy Coney Barrett, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Thomas Griffith, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge
Neomi Rao, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge
Kyle Stuart Duncan, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge
Edith Brown Clement, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge
Alex Kozinski, Former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Robert Bork, Former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge, former acting Attorney General, former Solicitor General, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nominee, featured speaker at first Federalist Society Symposium in 1982
Kenneth Starr, Former President of Baylor University, former U.S. Appeals Court Judge, former U.S. Solicitor General, and independent counsel in the impeachment of Bill Clinton
Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader (R-KY)
Josh Hawley, U.S. Senator (R-MO)
Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator (R-TX)
Tom Cotton, U.S. Senator (R-AR)
Todd Young, U.S. Senator (R-ID)
Ben Sasse, U.S. Senator (R-NE)
Mike Lee, U.S. Senator (R-UT)
Orrin Hatch, Former Senate President Pro-Tempore, “critical role” player in the early Federalist Society days
David McIntosh, Federalist Society co-founder, current president of Club for Growth, former Republican Congressman (IN-02)
John Ashcroft, Former U.S. Attorney General
Eugene Scalia, Former U.S. Secretary of Labor
Jeff Sessions, Former U.S. Attorney General and former U.S. Senator (R-AL)
John Yoo, Former official at the Department of Justice, professor of law at the University California Berkeley School of Law
Peter Keisler, Federalist Society co-founder, former acting U.S. Attorney General, and former U.S. Assistant Attorney General
Theodore Olson, Former U.S. Solicitor General
Paul Clement, Former U.S. Solicitor General
Spencer Abraham, Former Secretary of Energy and former U.S. Senator (R-MI)
Gale Norton, Former U.S. Interior Secretary
Michael Chertoff, Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary
Philip Perry, Former general counsel to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and to the Department of Homeland Security
Alexander Acosta, Former U.S. Secretary of Labor and former U.S. Attorney
T. Kenneth Cribb Jr., Reagan advisor and former president of the Council for National Policy
Don McGahn, Former Trump White House counsel and Trump campaign counsel
Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General
Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General
David Yost, Ohio Attorney General
Richard Epstein, Professor of law at New York University
William Baude, Professor of law at University of Chicago
Randy Barnett, Professor of law at Georgetown University
Steven Calabresi, Federalist Society co-founder, professor of law at Northwestern University
Lee Liberman, Federalist Society co-founder, Federalist Society vice president and Faculty Division Director, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University
John Eastman, Claremont Institute fellow and Trump ally
George Conway, Conservative political commentator
Ann Coulter, Conservative media personality
Miguel Estrada, Partner at Gibson Dunn
Robert P. George, Professor of politics at Princeton University
The Federalist Society played a major role in developing and advancing the originalist legal theory, “a designed approach of interpreting the Constitution very narrowly based on what the framers — all white, all men, all Christian — supposedly meant at the time they wrote it.” By building out and pushing this legal theory, the Federalist Society has given conservative judges the legal language and framework to strip federal regulations, roll back civil rights, and chip away at the separation of church and state.
Some of these positions contradict popular opinion, as seen by the public reaction to the court’s decision to strike down Roe and Casey. University of California law professor Mary Ziegler noted that “the Republican Party and the Federalist Society have created a parallel community with its own norms and sources of validation. The justices may not worry about losing legitimacy in one elite legal circle when they will be heroes in another.”
At the heart of the Federalist Society’s mode of influence is its profound ability to permeate the conservative elite — from pairing young legal professionals with Supreme Court clerkships, to hosting events featuring high-profile Republicans, to shaping the legal scholarship that federal judges use to write their opinions. By establishing itself as the predominant legal society for conservative and libertarian elites, the Federalist Society has made its membership the litmus test for conservative-minded individuals hoping to join the judiciary — all while claiming to take no positions on issues.
The Federalist Society’s strategy of amassing power by stacking the courts “represents something of a long-term strategy by the Republican Party.” Author and Constitutional law scholar Amanda Hollis-Brusky explained that, “By appointing judges who’ll narrowly interpret congressional regulations and statutes, you’re gambling that you won’t be in power politically but that your judges will be on the bench and take a more active role in shaping laws over the next 30 years.”
Decades of work aimed at installing right-wing judges on state and federal courts have earned the Federalist Society the title of the “conquerors of the courts.” For prospective judges, membership in the Federalist Society has “long been seen as a demonstration of ideological bona fides and a subscription to a package of ideas,” and there is evidence that judges who are Federalist Society members are significantly more conservative than Republican-nominated judges not involved with the society.
Politico described The Federalist Society’s events as forums for federal judges to “audition” for the Supreme Court, “with the goal of demonstrating they will not ‘drift’ to the left” like other Republican-nominated justices. In this way, the organization’s events are platforms for judges to “signal their fealty to the movement’s legal policy goals.” The Federalist Society also has a “disciplining effect” on active conservative judges, as they learn to adopt the group’s collective views on important legal decisions.
Over the past four decades, the Federalist Society has dramatically increased its power over Supreme Court nominations, transforming from a relatively unknown student organization at the beginning of the Reagan administration to the “de facto selector of Republican Supreme Court justices” in 2022.
In total, the Federalist Society has had ties to seven Supreme Court justices who were confirmed to the court: Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society played significant roles in the judicial selection processes for all six of the sitting conservative justices.
While the Federalist Society was still in its nascent years during the Reagan administration, its reach and influence expanded greatly as it benefitted from the patronage of administration officials such as U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, who “helped groom and credential young conservative lawyers by giving key positions in the Justice Department to early leaders of the society.” By 1988, Ronald Reagan was attending and speaking at Federalist Society events.
Four of the five judges that Reagan nominated to the Supreme Court were confirmed. Two of his nominees, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, were early members of the Federalist Society, though only Scalia ascended to the Supreme Court (Bork’s nomination failed in what is now regarded as a pivotal moment in American politics). Both Bork and Scalia spoke at the first Federalist Society symposium in 1982. Before nominating Bork, Reagan had also considered nominating another Federalist Society affiliate, then-Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT).
Notably, two of Reagan’s Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, shifted to the center of the ideological spectrum as their terms proceeded. Academics Neal Devins and Lawrence Baum note in a 2019 book on the Supreme Court that “ideology was not the only criterion” for nominees in Reagan’s first term; in the case of Sandra Day O’Connor, Reagan was fulfilling a campaign promise to nominate a woman to the court. The lack of an ideological “test” for Reagan’s nominees — who often sided with justices appointed by Democrats — resulted in backlash from conservatives who were angered that the Republican-appointed justices were seemingly veering away from the party. This set the stage for the Federalist Society to eventually make “staunch rightist views and allegiance a litmus test for any prospective Court appointment” during future administrations.
Federalist Society Co-Founder Lee Leiberman Otis, a former law clerk to Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, served as associate counsel to President George H.W. Bush. Another Federalist Society affiliate, C. Boyden Gray, also served as a White House counsel.
Seeking to avoid the dissonance caused by the Bork nomination, Bush nominated David Souter to replace the retiring William J. Brennan Jr. The White House pushed the narrative that Souter was “no Bork,” and Bush himself said that he did not use ”the litmus test approach” nor did he “quiz Souter on his views on abortion affirmative action or other matters that will shape the future of the court,” saying he had “too much respect for the Supreme Court for that.” Other accounts point to Bush’s disinterest in the judiciary. Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Nine notes that George H.W. Bush’s “heart was never in the cause” of the conservative legal project and that Bush was “preoccupied with the sudden fall of Communism and had no stomach for a fight in the Democratic Senate over a Supreme Court nominee.”
Souter’s nomination did not quell the concerns of conservatives in the moment, despite assurances from White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu at the time that Souter was sufficiently conservative. The president of the Family Research Council said conservatives felt ”a little bit of unease” about the nomination after Souter said his mind was open on abortion during his hearing. Souter’s approach as a justice was more independent than the ideologically-driven judicial philosophy that conservatives had wanted. This became a major point of contention when Souter voted to uphold Roe v. Wade in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. By 1995, a conservative magazine had labeled Souter as “one of the staunchest liberals on the court—a more reliable champion of liberal causes than Clinton appointees Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.” This shift, along with similar ideological drifts from Reagan Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, produced conservative rallying calls of “No More Souters” and subsequently a call to action for the Federalist Society to take more control of judicial nominations. John H. Sununu, who pushed heavily for Souter’s nomination, said Souter “seemed to have felt a commitment to his conservative philosophy for about six months, and then just fell off a cliff into the dark side of liberalism.”
David Souter was the last Republican Supreme Court nominee to not be connected to the Federalist Society, as George H.W. Bush’s next and final Supreme Court nominee was Clarence Thomas – whom Federalist Society members have called “the closest thing to a pure Federalist Society judge.” Leo even delayed his start at the Federalist Society during this time to help Thomas through his contentious confirmation process for the Supreme Court. To this day, Thomas is deeply connected to Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society, and regularly speaks at their events.
In response to Anita Hill’s sexual assault allegations against Clarence Thomas, the Bradley Foundation provided a grant to support David Brock’s 1992 book The Real Anita Hill, which was “designed to “ruin” Hill’s reputation and remove lingering doubts about Thomas’ fitness for the Supreme Court.” Brock later recanted the book’s claims, admitting that right-wing activists encouraged him to lie and sling “virtually every derogatory—and often contradictory—allegation [he] had collected on Hill.”
The Federalist Society played a major role in Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In 1994, Attorney General Rober Fiske Jr. opened an independent investigation into financial irregularities involving a land deal involving President Clinton. Ken Starr, a Federalist Society member, was appointed to run this investigation less than a year into its creation. According to the LA Times, Starr was investigating “hazy allegations.”
When Starr’s investigations failed to produce anything meaningful, he switched course to investigate Bill Clinton’s affair with his intern Monica Lewinsky. Future Supreme Court Justice and Federalist Society member Brett Kavanaugh was a part of the investigation into Clinton and Lewinsky. Starr pressed the case for impeachment of Clinton before Congress, but ultimately failed to win a conviction.
Federalist Society lawyers also played a key role in the 2000 election. According to Slate, society lawyers flew to Florida to “make certain” that ballots were counted in favor of George W. Bush in Florida. The New York Times similarly reported that Federalist Society members “played prominent roles” in the 2000 election that led to the election of George W. Bush. The league of lawyers formed what is known as the “Brooks Brothers riot,” which has been seen as a precursor to 2020 election challenges.
The Federalist Society exerted significant influence on both of George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominations. John Roberts and Samuel Alito both have “significant ties to the society,” although John Roberts was directly listed as a Federalist Society member in 1997-98. When this was publicly reported, the Federalist Society publicly demanded a retraction because they claimed Roberts didn’t officially pay membership dues. This reflected the public stance of the society at the time, as it was fending off criticisms that they had undue influence on the George W. Bush administration. During the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, the Federalist Society hired CRC Advisors to give its members media training and then placed the members on TV to advocate for Roberts.
When Bush tried to nominate Harriet Miers in the same year, she faced significant opposition from the “more vocal Federalist Society types.” Though Miers’ nomination received public support from Leonard Leo, others in the society attacked Miers through op-eds on multiple grounds, “including her lack of ties to the Federalist Society.” Miers eventually withdrew her nomination and Bush nominated Samuel Alito, a “Federalist Society mainstay type” who worked in the Reagan Justice Department with many of the Federalist Society founders.
Leonard Leo was heavily involved in both nominations, and likened the process to a political campaign where he and his team identified “senators who were on the fence, and generated calls, letters, and e-mails from constituents to support each nominee.”
In early 2016, top Trump campaign lawyer and Federalist Society member Don McGahn came up with the idea to release a list of prospective Supreme Court nominees to fill Scalia’s still-vacant seat. According to the Chicago Tribune, the list was a strategy to “reassure the GOP base” of his commitment to the party. CNN called the list “unorthodox” and noted that both the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society played a role in its creation. The Tribune said Leonard Leo was “at McGahn’s side throughout the process.” Trump told right-wing outlet Breitbart a month after the release of the list that “we’re going to have great judges, conservative, all picked by the Federalist Society.”
The original list, released in May 2016, consisted of the following names–all of whom are affiliated with the Federalist Society:
A name notably absent from this original list is Neil Gorsuch – Trump’s eventual pick to fill Scalia’s seat. As David Kaplan reports in The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution, Gorsuch worked his way onto Trump’s, Leo’s, and McGahn’s radar by writing a key lower court ruling that severely undercut the ability of the federal agencies to create binding regulations – a key goal of the Federalist Society. Gorsuch’s opinion, according to Kaplan, was “a way for Gorsuch to call attention to himself, and it worked.” By September 2016, Trump released an updated list that included Gorsuch.
According to The New Yorker, Leonard Leo “acted as the unofficial mayor” of the Senate during Gorsuch’s confirmation. Leo repeatedly stressed that ushering through Supreme Court nominees was analogous to a political campaign, and the Federalist Society’s campaigns were bolstered by one of his other groups, Judicial Crisis Network.
Shortly after his confirmation to the Supreme Court, Gorsuch took a “victory lap” at a Society dinner. According to Politico, “Gorsuch vowed to continue to expound the group’s favored judicial philosophies from his new post.”
After Gorsuch’s nomination, the Trump White House issued an updated list of prospective Supreme Court nominees. Two key names on this list were Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Kavanaugh was a longtime Federalist Society member and ally of Leo from their time together in the George W. Bush administration, where they played key roles in the administration’s judicial selection process. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus said that “when Brett Kavanaugh’s clerks were trying to make sure he got on Donald Trump’s list to be on the Supreme Court, they made a pilgrimage to the Federalist Society to see Leonard Leo … to kiss the ring.”
Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2018 after Justice Kennedy retired. Kavanaugh’s nomination quickly became controversial due to credible allegations of sexual misconduct levied against him. Leo used his network of nonprofits to send $4 million to Independent Women’s Voice, who attacked the allegations against Kavanaugh. Judicial Crisis Network’s president, Carrie Severino, also strongly criticized the allegations against Kavanaugh. In 2019, after Kavanaugh’s narrow confirmation, he was the keynote speaker at the Federalist Society’s annual black-tie dinner and received a “hero’s welcome.”
Trump would release another addition to this list in September 2020 and pressured Joe Biden to release a list of his own. The list was released less than two weeks before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Two prospective nominees emerged in the mad dash to fill Ginsburg’s seat before the 2020 election: Amy Coney Barret and Barbara Lagoa, both of whom are Federalist Society members.
Politico claimed that Barrett was “groomed” as a potential Supreme Court justice by Federalist Society members when she was studying law at Notre Dame. According to a former member of Notre Dame Law School, the faculty who scouted Barrett’s potential “were trying to create a certain phalanx of people mainly to overturn Roe, but also to prioritize religion.”
With Barrett’s nomination, the majority of Supreme Court justices were tied to the Federalist Society and were at least partially a product of the advocacy of Leonard Leo.
Federalist Society co-founder David McIntosh explained that the society’s mission is carried out in “untold ways” across “thousands of decisions at various levels of government and the community outside of government.” The Federalist Society network became a key player in the federal judicial selection process during the Reagan administration, and continues to exert considerable and politically consequential influence on the federal judiciary outside of the Supreme Court.
At a 2018 Federalist Society gala, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) praised the organization for its role in “transforming the judiciary for as long into the future as we can.” In 2019, McConnell announced he would focus the Senate’s work on judicial confirmations shortly after receiving over $250,000 from Federalist Society board member and “leading voice on judicial appointments” C. Boyden Gray.
The Federalist Society acts as a stable for Republican presidential administrations, cultivating a farm of conservative judges who have been vetted as ideologically-aligned. The organization had not yet fully developed its roster during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, but by the time George W. Bush took office, the society could “select, vet, and shepherd Bush’s judicial nominees.” The group’s influence continued into the Trump administration, with Trump himself disclosing to the right-wing outlet Breitbart in 2016, “we’re going to have great judges, conservative, all picked by the Federalist Society.”
Affiliation with the Federalist Society is also an asset for a prospective federal judge’s confirmation process. A 2022 study at the University of Albany found that since the Senate reduced the threshold for confirming federal judicial nominees to a simple majority, a circuit court nominee’s affiliation with the Federalist Society increased their chances of confirmation by 20%.
A 2008 study found that lower-level federal court nominations have become increasingly politicized since the 1980s, coinciding with the rise of the Federalist Society. The study claims that “there is little evidence that the Senate independently considers a lower court nominee’s ideology in the absence of interest group opposition.” The study also found that conservative interest groups wielded more influence than liberal groups on the confirmation process for federal judges.
A 2009 study found that the appeals court judges who were affiliated with the Federalist Society were “significantly more conservative than nonmembers,” even in comparison to other judges appointed by Republicans. Appeals courts are “frequently the last stop for critical cases on constitutional rights” and “serve as a kind of apprenticeship for future Supreme Court nominees,” according to People for the American Way. The New York Times said that “nearly all federal litigation ends” at the circuit court level.
The 2009 study found that Federalist Society members were more likely to rule against defendants who brought forth Fourth Amendment claims, and more likely to rule that Congressional action overstepped state’s rights as enumerated in the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments.
The Federalist Society has used its considerable influence to successfully undermine nonpartisan efforts to monitor and strengthen the federal judiciary:
The George W. Bush administration heavily sourced its judicial nominations, cabinet members, and advisors from the Federalist Society. When met with criticism for potential undue influence, the Federalist Society members “repeatedly claimed to know little about the group’s beliefs.”
After Trump was elected in 2016, his top campaign lawyer, Don McGahn, spoke at a Federalist Society gathering and “declared that Trump’s judicial picks would adhere to the group’s philosophy.” In response to criticism that Trump had outsourced his judicial selection process to the Federalist Society, McGahn said, “I’ve been a member of the Federalist Society since law school — still am. So frankly, it seems like it’s been in-sourced.” At a 2018 Federalist Society gala, late-Senator Orrin Hatch said to the crowd, “some have accused President Trump of outsourcing his judicial selection process to the Federalist Society. I say, ‘Damn right!’”
The Federalist Society’s influence runs deep in the state and municipal court systems. In 2019, the majority of justices on eight state supreme courts were Federalist Society members: Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas.
Two years into his term as Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis had seated three judges affiliated with the Federalist Society on the state supreme court, all of whom were interviewed by Leonard Leo before they were nominated. DeSantis seated a fourth justice affiliated with the Federalist Society in 2022. Additionally, in less than three years, DeSantis seated three right-wing judges on Florida’s First Court Of Appeal, which hears disputes involving the state government.
Constitutional law professor Bob Jarvis Nova Southeastern University said DeSantis created “the most conservative Florida Supreme Court that we’ve had in decades. There is no judicial independence.”
The Federalist Society-affiliated judges that DeSantis stacked onto Florida’s supreme court have:
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker appointed three state supreme court justices who were Federalist Society members. Walker also appointed Federalist Society members to appeals courts and circuit court judgeships. Two of his supreme court nominees were particularly controversial: Justice Rebecca Bradley called individuals afflicted with AIDS “degenerates” and used a homophobic slur in columns she wrote in college. Justice Dan Kelly attacked same-sex marriage and compared affirmation action to slavery in a book he wrote.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld some of Walker’s controversial agenda items:
One of the Federalist Society affiliates on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is Brian Hagedorn. While serving as an appeals court judge in 2018, Hagedorn drew controversy for sending an email to judges around the state encouraging them to attend a Federalist Society conference. Hagedorn claimed the state would reimburse their travel and meal costs to the conference, and offered legal education credits to lawyers who attended. Fifteen Wisconsin judges wrote a letter in protest, pointing out that the event’s keynote speaker, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, was in the midst of his re-election campaign.
In recent years, the Federalist Society-affiliated justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have further entrenched conservative power in the state:
Texas Supreme Court Justice and Federalist Society member Brett Busby was first appointed to the supreme court by Gov. Greg Abbott shortly after he lost his re-election bid to a Houston appeals court in 2018. Busby’s loss was a part of a clean Democrat sweep in Houston in 2018, and His appointment to the state supreme court was part of a larger campaign led by Abbott to stack the state judiciary with conservative judges who lost elections to Democratic candidates.
At a Federalist Society meeting following Democratic judges’ victories in Houston, a prominent law professor argued against merit-based judicial selections for Texas judges, claiming it would lead to liberal bias. Shortly thereafter, Abbott moved to end judicial elections and replace them with gubernatorial appointments.
A major GOP donor conducted an independent analysis in 2020 and concluded that big law firms that “politically support” Texas Supreme Court justices “get the best results.”
Since 2016, the Texas Supreme Court justices who are affiliated with the Federalist Society have made a slew of decisions entrenching conservative power by:
After the Arizona Legislature expanded the state supreme court — which at least one legislator said was politically motivated by Republicans — Gov. Doug Ducey quickly nominated a local Federalist Society chapter leader to the high court. Ducey also effectively stacked the state’s judicial nominating commission by refusing to fill vacancies after the commission rejected one of his supreme court nominees.
Ducey spoke at a Federalist Society event in 2019, where he said that the group “has now fixed the judicial branch.” Ducey’s Federalist Society-dominated court has assisted in consolidating conservative power in the state by:
As of 2022, three of Ohio’s four state supreme court justices have “deep” ties to the Federalist Society. Two of those justices, Pat DeWine and Pat Fischer, are running for re-election in 2022. Justice Sharon Kennedy, who is running for the chief justice seat, is also open about her frequent participation in Federalist Society events.
Ohio Attorney General David Yost is also a proud Federalist Society member. Yost is known for his anti-abortion activism, pushing through a restrictive state-level abortion ban after Roe v. Wade was struck down. He also questioned the veracity of a story of a 10-year old girl in Ohio who was raped and forced to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion. The story was true, and Yost faced calls to resign.
In 2001, when a majority of the Michigan Supreme Court justices were Federalist Society members, the court ruled against private citizens and in favor of insurance companies and corporations 19 out of 20 times. In the previous term, when the majority of justices were not Federalist Society members, private citizens won 22 of 45 such cases.
From 2018 to 2020, Federalist Society members made up a majority of the Michigan Supreme Court. In 2020, Michigan Supreme Court Justice and early Federalist Society leader Stephen Markman wrote a decision that struck down the state’s COVID-19 safety protocols.
The Democrats retook the majority on the court in 2021.
The Federalist Society’s success and influence are largely owed to its vast network of conservative and libertarian lawyers, law students, judges, government officials, and other conservative activists. Over the past four decades, the organization has grown to be one of the largest and most influential conservative groups in the country, touting over 70,000 legal professionals.
Individuals often move through various levels of the Federalist Society network; a common trajectory for a member starts at one of the organization’s law school chapters, and from there, graduate into a Federalist Society lawyers chapter or “practice group.”
Federalist Society members, “bound together and shaped by a set of beliefs about law, the nature of government, and constitutional interpretation,” are brought together at conferences, symposiums, and debates, where they are able to share ideas and build relationships with generally like-minded people. In this way, individuals affiliated with the Federalist Society act as “cognitive baggage handlers” who carry these shared ideas into their legal or academic careers. Membership with the Federalist Society ultimately offers the opportunity to “change law, public policy, and the judiciary.”
The Federalist Society calls its student division “the cornerstone of the society’s efforts” and claims to maintain chapters “at nearly every ABA-accredited law school in the country.” In its 2021 annual report, the organization reported having over 200 active chapters at law schools.
The Federalist Society’s activism on college campuses goes far beyond its student chapters and clerkship support. In 2017, the college activist group UnKoch My Campus released more than 700 pages of emails and other documents showing communication and coordination between Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society, and the Antonin Scalia Law School (ASLS) at George Mason University — a publicly-funded institution.
Thanks for your time today. I’m checking those dates in May and will be back to you soon. In the meantime, I wanted to introduce you to Ryan Lodata, who will be the LEC’s Outreach Coordinator for the Federal Judge’s Initiative and Attorneys General Initiative. So Ryan will be the one keeping track of nominations, confirmations, and recruitment of judges for our programs. He may be in touch with you from time-to-time to compare notes and the like. Thanks for your offer to help us out with these projects. I look forward to working together.
We are hoping to place Scalia Law Alumni who are current members of our Fed Soc student chapter, alumni who were active in Fed Soc, and other Scalia Law conservative and libertarian alums in federal clerkships. We wonder if there may be an opportunity to get such candidates in front of judges incoming under the new administration as they seek clerks under atypical timeframes.
Another core tenet of the Federalist Society’s network is its faculty program.
The organization’s presence on law school campuses has often been described as a “pipeline” to senior jobs in government, academia, law firms, and federal judgeships. Law students who become members of The Federalist Society gain access to “prestigious professional advantages that only the society can offer them.” The New Yorker described the Federalist Society as “a kind of Rolodex for legal jobs,” particularly clerkships for law students who have just graduated.
In addition to its monumental role in helping students land coveted clerkships, the organization also holds enough sway in the judiciary that one federal judge suggested disqualifying students who spoke out against the organization from being placed into clerkships.
Beyond its influence on the makeup of the judiciary itself, the Federalist Society has played a profound role in shaping and promoting the legal theories and methods widely used by conservative judges today. The Washington Post said that much of the group’s influence “comes not from its very public Washington victories but from its behind-the-scenes, grassroots ability to shift the law at the idea level, even the cultural level.”
The Federalist Society claims that it “does not lobby for or endorse particular legislation, policies, or political candidates of either major party,” and is merely “about ideas.” However, “ideas need agents or networks of actors to transmit them” into legal action, and the Federalist Society fills this void. Through its campus events and programs for practicing lawyers, the group is “credited with popularizing methods of legal analysis now widely advocated by many conservatives and employed by an increasing number of judges.”
In her 2015 book, Ideas With Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution, Amanda Hollis-Brusky analyzed the Federalist Society’s impacts on recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, gun control, and state sovereignty.
Although the Federalist Society claims to not take an ideological or political stance on abortion, the group’s actions, leadership, and members make it clear that the organization overwhelmingly supports restricting access to abortion.
Many Federalist Society members, including former vice president and current co-chair Leonard Leo, have expressed their opposition to abortion on moral grounds.
A year from now, there will be infants going from milk to soft foods because Dobbs triggered laws and shuttered clinics on Friday and not Monday. Now gestating, they’ll learn to walk, catch fireflies, fall in love, comb gray hair, because of appointments canceled last Friday. Not just by good fortune but—for the first time in generations—by legal right.
For years, Federalist Society members questioned the legality of Roe, usually by casting doubt on whether the Constitution grants a right to privacy. The organization has hosted dozens of events “debating” the legality of abortion, featuring prominent anti-abortion activists.
It is no coincidence that all six sitting conservative Supreme Court Justices who voted to remove the constitutional right to have an abortion have ties to the Federalist Society.
The overall anti-abortion sentiment of the Federalist Society culminated in June 2022, when the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority overturned Roe v. Wade. In July 2022, the New Yorker reported that Federalist Society members played a major role in shaping the legislation and litigation strategy that paved the way for the Supreme Court to strike down Roe.
Legal professionals connected through the Federalist Society helped “build the legal scaffolding” for the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United in 2010—the game-changing decision that opened the floodgates for wealthy donors and special interests to spend unlimited amounts of untraceable money to influence elections.
The Federalist Society has been called the “incubator” of the Supreme Court suits that tried, unsuccessfully, to gut the Affordable Care Act. The Washington Post detailed how Randy Barnett, who was at the time a leading voice of the Federalist Society’s libertarian wing, became “one of the architects of constitutional claims at the core of lawsuits against the health-care plan.”
No one at Federalist Society headquarters in Washington dictated Barnett’s moves or told him how to advocate for what positions. It’s just that at a few gatherings made possible by the Federalist Society that Barnett happened to attend, synapses fired, a corner of the hive mind engaged, and Barnett took it from there. Multiply that chemistry tens of thousands of times over the past 36 years and you have the Federalist Society’s true source of power.
Federalist Society conferences commonly feature panels and speakers fear-mongering about “systematic regulatory overreach,” and proposals that would restrict or abolish the power of federal agencies to regulate.
In Ideas With Consequences, Amanda Hollis-Brusky documents the Federalist Society’s influence on multiple Second Amendment cases, including the group’s connections to the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
In 2021, the Federalist Society began working with state legislatures in Nebraska and North Carolina. The organization’s Article I Initiative partnered with the Levin Center to “provide nonpartisan oversight programming to state legislators” with the goal of “examining the best legislative oversight practices.” The Federalist Society said in its 2021 annual report that its efforts were “well received by state officials,” and the group plans to “dramatically expand the number of these state legislature events.”
Individuals in the Federalist Society network were instrumental in the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) both voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election following the Capitol riot. Cruz and Hawley were involved with their law schools’ Federalist Society student chapters, and have since spoken at numerous Federalist Society events. At a 2012 Federalist Society event, Cruz said he “grew up with the Federalist Society,” calling it his “home” for his entire adult and professional life.
John Eastman is a notable Federalist Society member and serves as chair of the organization’s Federalism & Separation of Powers Practice Group. Eastman also serves as a senior fellow and board member at the Claremont Institute. Eastman also played a key role in the legal attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
Jonathan Bunch is a former senior vice president at the Federalist Society who has been described as Leo’s “right-hand man.” Bunch has been involved in several Leo-linked entities and is currently the president of CRC Advisors, a public relations consulting firm Leo founded in 2020.
From 2007 to 2008, Jonathan Bunch was the executive director of “Better Courts for Missouri,” a nonprofit organization that aimed to fundamentally alter the state’s merit-based judicial nomination process.
Better Courts’ strategy reflects the Leo network’s typical playbook at the state level. In Iowa, Judicial Crisis Network financed a 2018 campaign that advocated for giving partisan legislators the power to select members of the judicial nomination commission, “meaning politicians will choose every member.”
American Juris Link is a conservative legal group founded by Director of the Federalist Society’s Pro-Bono Center, Carrie Ann Donell. American Juris Link has led the legal charge against COVID-19 safety measures, assisting other groups and individuals file lawsuits to challenge them. It has also assisted in anti-union litigation.
American Juris Link is closely tied to the State Policy Network, a nonprofit organization that runs a coordinated network of conservative think tanks, consisting of over 160 organizations operating in all 50 states.
Conservative organizations and individuals have provided the Federalist Society with steady financial support since its founding. As the Washington Post put it, “while the Federalist Society may never take an official position on anything, conservative funders know who their friends are.”
The Federalist Society received $19.1 million in grants and contributions between October 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021, according to the group’s 2021 annual report. Conservative megadonors Thomas W. Smith and Ken Griffin each gave at least $100,000 in 2021, as did multi-billion dollar companies including Google, Oracle, and Koch Industries. In 2021, the organization received at least $100,000 each from major conservative donor groups including:
The Lynde and Harry Bradley, Sarah Scaife, and John M. Olin Foundations have been major financial backers of the Federalist Society for decades. Between 2005 and 2016, the Bradley Foundation gave $4.8 million to the society.
The group’s tax records and annual reports from recent years also show that the organization has received substantial funding from Koch Industries, the Mercer Family Foundation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 2017, The Federalist Society received more than $300,000 from organizations tied to Charles and David Koch.
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