Judicial Crisis Network Is The Lynchpin Of Leonard Leo’s Efforts To Capture The Court System—And Has Ran Influence Campaigns That Led To The Nomination Of Five Supreme Court Justices
Judicial Crisis Network is the lynchpin of conservative activist Leonard Leo’s efforts to capture the court system and has led to the nomination of five Supreme Court justices:
After successfully getting a block of like-minded ideologues onto the Supreme Court, the Court appears poised to make decisions aligned with the mission of Leo and his conservative allies, including its recent decision to overturn abortion rights nationwide.
Leonard Leo and longtime political ally Neil Corkery conceived the Judicial Crisis Network at a dinner party attended by conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Leo and Corkery, a fellow right-wing ideologue and operative, wanted to create an organization to help confirm conservative nominees in anticipation of Supreme Court vacancies that George W. Bush ultimately filled with Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Reporting from OpenSecrets states that Neil’s wife Ann Corkery, an experienced lawyer, conservative fundraiser, and Koch brothers ally, and California “foreclosure king” Robin Arkley II were also in attendance and were instrumental in securing initial funding for the organization.
In 2005, it was reported that Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney to Trump who served as lead outside counsel for Trump’s first impeachment trial, invited conservative political strategist and George W Bush’s 2004 coalition leader Gary Marx to “set up the Judicial Confirmation Network in his offices so they could combine forces.”
The Judicial Confirmation Network rebranded itself to the Judicial Crisis Network during the Obama administration.
Seed funding for JCN was funneled through the Wellspring Committee, a “dark money conduit,” founded with the help of conservative donors, most notably the Koch Brothers and Robin Arkley II, a California “foreclosure king” who was also a major funder of the powerful conservative legal cadre the Federalist Society. The Federalist Society has created an ideological backbone and a tight-knit political network that has enabled Leo’s vision for the U.S. judiciary.
Carrie Severino is the president of the Judicial Crisis Network (legally registered as the Concord Fund) and she is also affiliated with the Judicial Education Project (now known as the 85 Fund). She is a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Severino is tied to the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center through her husband Roger, who works there as the Vice President of Domestic Policy. During the Trump Administration, Roger led the Office Of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services. There, Roger created a ‘religious freedom’ division that aided healthcare providers who refused to provide abortions or gender-affirming care. He also reversed Obama-era protections that banned LGBTQ discrimination in healthcare.
The New York Times called Roger and Carrie Severino “leaders in the anti-abortion movement” and said the couple “celebrated” the fall of Roe v. Wade. Carrie Severino called Roe “the most egregious judicial distortion of the constitution in living memory.” A different piece from The New York Times said that the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court was the realization of the Severinos’ “dream” to enforce a socially conservative legal mandate on the United States.
Throughout the years, Carrie Severino has advocated for the anti-abortion movement while working at JCN:
Carrie Severino faced public criticism for her zealous defense of Brett Kavanaugh as he faced accusations of sexual assault and misconduct.
Severino’s father was a business partner of Daniel DeVos of the right-wing megadonor DeVos family. The Guardian said that the DeVos family has “promoted right-wing causes and candidates for years” and HuffPost described the family as “conservative royalty.” Vanity Fair found that the DeVos family gave as much as $200 million to conservative causes since the 1970s. Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a member of the family.
Severino is also a frequent Fox News contributor.
Ann Corkery, known for her fundraising prowess, founded the Wellspring Committee, the Koch-funded dark money group that was the main funder of Judicial Crisis Network until it sunsetted in 2018. She was also “instrumental” in launching JCN and currently serves as counsel of the 85 Fund, Leonard Leo’s primary fundraising operation. Ann and her husband are influential right-wing operatives closely involved in Leonard Leo’s network of nonprofits seeking to advance religious right-wing agendas. Salon reported that the Corkerys have used the network they built alongside Leonard Leo “to prop up conservative judicial nominees”
Gary Marx is a political strategist identified as one of the “official partners in Leo’s consolidated dark money network.” Marx is a consistent aid to Leo and was present alongside Leo at a private reception celebrating Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
In addition to roles with the Judicial Crisis Network and the 85 Fund, Marx is the president and co-founder of Madison Strategies, a conservative political consulting firm. Madison Strategies counts Walmart, Senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Judicial Crisis Network among its clients.
Frank Scaturro is a lawyer and 3-time former Republican congressional candidate for the fourth district of New York.
Wendy Long is a founding member of JCN and served as chief counsel in its nascent years. She previously clerked for JusticeClarence Thomas, where she met her husband Authur Long and worked for Republican Senators William L. Armstrong and Gordon J. Humphrey. Long was a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute in 1987 and worked for the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life before entering law school. After her clerkship, she moved to New York to join Kirkland & Ellis, before helping to launch JCN. A 2012 profile of Long by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America described her as “a constant pro-life voice” who Laura Ingraham referred to as the “female future of the Republican Party.”
In an interview with OpenSecrets, Brendan Fischer of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington said that JCN’s funding apparatus “has the effect of layering secrecy on top of secrecy, and almost entirely insulating donors from any form of public accountability.”
Initial funding for the Judicial Crisis Network came from Robin Arkley II, a California “foreclosure king” who was also a major funder to JCN’s predecessor, the Wellspring Committee, as well as the Federalist Society. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative legal advocacy organization run by Jay Sekulow, also provided seed money for JCN in its nascent years.
Leonard Leo’s now-defunct dark money fundraiser, Wellspring Committee “accounted for more than 90 percent of JCN’s total funding” until the Committee was dissolved in 2018. In 2016 alone, the Wellspring Committee donated $23 million to JCN, and in total between 2012 and 2018 the Wellspring Committee gave JCN $53,684,772. While the Wellspring Committee was the preeminent funder of JCN for a decade, JCN also received funding from various other sources for the first three years of its lifespan.
One regular donor to JCN is the 45Committee, a “pro-Trump nonprofit organization” founded in 2015 and “primarily funded” by Sheldon Adelson and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. In 2016, the 45Committee gave JCN $200,000 and in 2018, the 45Committee gave JCN $3,000,000.
In 2020, the Rule of Law Trust, a nonprofit organization whose sole employee is Leonard Leo, made a $21.5 million grant to JCN, accounting for nearly half of JCN’s revenue that year.
Judicial Crisis Network’s campaigns were key to the appointments and confirmations of Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court—as well as the obstruction of Merrick Garland’s confirmation to the Court. JCN spent roughly $10 million per justice to ensure the confirmations of Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Barrett and $7 million to block Garland.
OpenSecrets and The Daily Beast reported that the Judicial Crisis Network—then known as the Judicial Confirmation Network—was founded in 2004 with the goal of “drumming up support for [George W.] Bush Supreme Court nominees John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito Jr.”
In 2008, JCN ran an advertisement touting their support for Roberts and Alito, and hitting Obama for various staffing choices while voting against Roberts and Alito while in the Senate. JCN had previously spent over $570,000 in opposition to Obama’s candidacy in 2008.
JCN reportedly went “all in” opposing Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, “setting up state-level opposition groups to pressure vulnerable Democratic senators.” Reporting from Roll Call at the time of Sotomayor’s nomination claimed that Republicans were “planning to coordinate closely with outside activist groups like the Judicial Confirmation Network.”
JCN Counsel Wendy Long said at the time “I hope for and I expect a fight,” and after news of Justice David Souter’s retirement broke, Long joined with other conservative groups to arrange for a conference call the next morning “to talk strategy with representatives of more than 60 groups.” Subsequent reporting confirmed that JCN led a coalition of over 60 groups to oppose Sotomayor’s nomination.
Sotomayor’s nomination fight proved to be financially beneficial for JCN. Less than three weeks after Souter announced his retirement on May 1, 2009, “[Gary] Marx said his group ha[d] raised more than a million dollars and [would] devote several million to the Supreme Court fight.” The surge in donations followed a “breakfast meeting of conservative groups” where Souter’s retirement “dominated the discussion and one participant offered $200,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.”
According to The Atlantic, JCN launched a website in May 2009 called Obama’s Frontrunners that hosted attack ads targeting several of Obama’s prospective Supreme Court nominees: Sonia Sotomayor, Elana Kagan, and Diane Wood. The ad against Sotomayor alleged that she racially discriminated against white firefighters in a case she had been previously involved with. Wendy Long amplified this attack on Sotomayor, calling her decision in the case “the equivalent of a pilot error resulting in a bad plane crash. And now the pilot is being offered to fly Air Force One.” In a separate comment, Long invoked firefighters’ role in 9/11 and said that Sotomayor “would sacrifice their claims to fair treatment in employment promotions to racial preferences and quotas.” Long also claimed that Sotomayor’s career was the beneficiary of “racial preferences.”
JCN continued to attack Sotomayor on issues of race, running an ad that implied she discriminated against white men based on a speech she made in 2001. Long released a statement accompanying the ad stating that Sotomayor believed “judges should dictate policy, and that one’s sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench.” PoliticFact said Sotomayor’s statement “isn’t suggesting the intellect of Latina women is superior to that of white men, only that a greater diversity of experience and thought would be a valuable addition to the court system.”
JCN also criticized Sotomayor for signing a memo in 1981 opposing capital punishment and claiming it is “associated with evident racism in our society.” JCN said the memo was further evidence that Sotomayor was a “a hard-left liberal judicial activist” unfit for the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor’s past statements on whether judges make policy were raised in several ads run by JCN, and the Republican National Committee distributed a talking points memo claiming ‘Judge Sotomayor has also said that policy is made on the U.S. Court of Appeals.’”
After Sotomayor’s confirmation, JCN criticized Senator Lindsey Graham (R – SC) for defending Sotomayor’s record in her confirmation hearing and voting to confirm her. JCN said Graham “lack[ed] courage, statesmanship, and an understanding of the Constitution and rule of law” and that he appeared to be “even more of a judicial activist than [Sotomayor] is.”
According to JCN’s 2010 tax filing, the group focused heavily on opposing Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court:
“Our most significant efforts in the past year included taking the lead in opposing the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court marshalling grass-roots, earned media, and social media, as well as briefings of senators and staffers and a video project making the case against her nomination.”
In a 2010 advertisement opposing Kagan’s nomination, JCN accused Kagan of “kicking the military off campus, incredibly, during a time of war” while she was the dean of Harvard Law School. This attack against Kagan originated in the months preceding the Sotomayor nomination, when JCN launched a website in May 2009 called Obama’s Frontrunners that hosted an attack ad Sonia Sotomayor, Elana Kagan, and Diane Wood who were all potential choices to be Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee. The Atlantic reported at the time that JCN sought to portray Kagan as an “Academic peacenik opposed to the military.”
Months after the initial 2010 advertisement, JCN posted a 9 minute video titled “Closing Arguments: The case against Elena Kagan” featuring Carrie Severino and concluding that Kagan was unfit to serve on the Supreme Court.
In 2016, during the wake of Antonin Scalia’s death and the potential for former President Obama to nominate another Justice to the Supreme Court, JCN engaged in a widespread fight to block the nomination of Merrick Garland, and eventually bolster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.
JCN ran identical advertisements in Iowa, Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky as a part of the “Let The People Decide Campaign,” which stated that Republican Senators agreed that “the people should decide” who fills the Supreme Court vacancy via the upcoming presidential election. The ads claimed that this “isn’t about Republicans or Democrats, it’s about your voice.” A separate advertisement was created and ran in Ohio, crediting Rob Portman for his belief that “it’s wrong to nominate someone without the American people’s input.” Additional advertisements ran in Iowa, supporting Chuck Grassley for stopping Obama from “installing a new liberal majority on the Supreme Court.”
Advertisements in West Virginia attacked Joe Manchin for “siding with Washington liberals” in favor of Garland and pushed Manchin to “stand with Patrick Morrisey,” the Attorney General of West Virginia who was “fighting to protect the coal industry.”
One ad spot against Garland posited that he would “be the tie-breaking vote for Obama’s big government liberalism,” that the second amendment would be “gutted,” “partial-birth abortion” would be legalized, and “unaccountable agencies like the EPA” would be “unleashed” if he were to be confirmed. Another advertisement titled “He’s No Moderate” said that the NRA and “small business leaders” opposed Garland because he would “harm our fragile economy.”
After the 2016 election, JCN ran a final ad spot thanking Chuck Grassley for “standing strong for conservative values and the rule of law.” In total, reporting on JCN’s advertisements showed that the organization spent more than $5 million to block Garland’s nomination.
Following the successful obstruction of Garland’s nomination and the election of Donald Trump, the New York Times Editorial Board lamented the “shameful, infuriating actions of the Senate Republicans” who “rejected their own professed values of preserving American institutions” and argued that “the person who gets confirmed will sit in a stolen seat.”
Following the 2016 election, JCN launched a $500,000 ad campaign “praising Trump’s SCOTUS pledge,” with the 30-second ad spot running in Washington, D.C., New York City, and South Florida.
Once Trump announced his choice of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat, JCN launched a $10 million advertisement campaign to support Gorsuch’s nomination. The campaign began with over $2 million spent “on TV and online ads in Washington, D.C., and in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and Montana.”
JCN advertisements supporting Gorsuch ranged from a biographical piece, testimonials from former clerks, and one touting “bipartisan support” in an advertisement calling Gorsuch a “real outdoorsman” who “rides horses and knows his way around a barn.” One advertisment featured clips of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s nomination hearings, while others stated that Gorsuch “enforces the law and is fair to everyone.”
JCN then released numerous advertisements in Montana and West Virginia, as well as multiple ads in Colorado, Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana, calling on senators in these states to support Gorsuch’s nomination, and accusing those who don’t of “creating gridlock.”
After Gorsuch’s confirmation, JCN ran a final set of advertisements thanking Senators Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, Grassley, and McConnell for their votes to confirm Gorsuch, in addition to an ad spot thanking President Trump for nominating Gorsuch.
Following the 2018 announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, the Judicial Crisis Network launched “a seven-figure national cable and digital ad buy” titled #AnotherGreatJustice, touting Gorsuch’s confirmation and Trumps’ infamous list of potential Supreme Court nominees compiled by Leonard Leo. The ad kicked off JCN’s campaign to replace Justice Kennedy.
JCN launched confirmkavanaugh.com which “went live as Mr. Trump announced his selection” of Brett Kavanaugh. This website was followed by a larger campaign by JCN involving numerous ad buys in a variety of states over the course of Kavanaugh’s nomination process.
In addition to the millions spent on advertisements, JCN’s Carrie Severino frequently released statements responding to the hearings and opposition to Kavanaugh. JCN statements ranged from calling on Senators Manchin, Heitkamp, Donnelly and other “red state Democrats” to “distance themselves from this extremist behavior,” referencing Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh in the hearings, to positing that Democratic Senators were “taking marching orders from a liberal NY Senator.“
In 2018, JCN also sent robotexts to Indiana residents, “urging recipients to contact the office of [now-former] U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) about the nomination of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.” This action prompted the Campaign for Accountability to file a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the grounds that JCN was “violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by sending mass robotexts from a misleading number.”
On September 26, 2020, the same day that President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, JCN announced that it would spend at least $10 million over the course of 30 days to support Barrett’s confirmation.
Vox described Barrett, who bills herself as a “faithful Catholic,” as a favorite of the religious right, with a record that “suggests she’ll be a reliable conservative if confirmed to the Supreme Court.”
As a judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett “twice signaled opposition to rulings that struck down abortion-related restrictions, voting to have those decisions reconsidered.” In her earlier academic writings, Barrett “weighed in on many of the cultural fights that animate religious conservatism,” making her “a favorite among social conservatives and conservative Christian leaders even before she became a judge.” AP News called Barrett “an heir” to hardline conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Barrett clerked for from 1998 to 1999. Barrett was also a “longtime member of the conservative judge pipeline the Federalist Society” before becoming a federal judge.
After the Senate voted to confirm Barrett, JCN claimed credit for the “historic achievement for the conservative legal movement, which has persevered for more than three decades in pursuit of a Supreme Court majority that will follow the Constitution.”
In 2022, immediately following the announcement of Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement, JCN began preparing its attacks on Biden’s yet-to-be-named Supreme Court nominee. They went on to attack Biden’s eventual nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson over her past criticism of Clarence Thomas, and JCN president Carrie Severino said she would be a “radical liberal justice.”
After Biden announced Ketanji Brown Jackson as the nominee, JCN spent $1.5 million on an ad highlighting a singular comment that Jackson made over 15 years ago about Justice Clarence Thomas.
“Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, remembers sitting across from Thomas at lunch once with a quizzical expression on her face. Jackson, who is black, said Thomas ‘spoke the language,’ meaning he reminded her of the black men she knew. ‘But I just sat there the whole time thinking: ‘I don’t understand you. You sound like my parents. You sound like the people I grew up with.’ But the lessons he tended to draw from the experiences of the segregated South seemed to be different than those of everybody I know.’”
“Justice Thomas’ role in shaping legal thought in the country and his fidelity to the Constitution has drawn attacks from the left for diverging from their approved ideology. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s nominee for the Court has said that she does not ‘understand’ Justice Thomas because he does not think like most people she knows.”
Carrie Severino continued the attacks on Jackson in an interview with the Washington Examiner, calling her a “radical liberal justice.” The article, titled “Conservative judicial activist says there’s a lot to criticize in Jackson record,” contained no substantive criticism of Jackson’s record. The piece includes only one out-of-context quote from Jackson about constitutional interpretation and a statistic showing that 0.017% of Jackson’s decisions as a U.S. District Court judge were reversed in whole or in part. In reality, the Alliance for Justice (AFJ) found that Jackson’s case reversal rate was much lower than the average district judge’s rate: “the D.C. Circuit reverses 13% of the cases it reviews on appeal, and the national average for such reversals across all circuit courts is 9%.” Additionally, AFJ found that Jackson’s case reversal rate was lower than some judges supported by Republicans.
After President Joe Biden assumed office, JCN shifted its attention toward attacking Biden’s nominees. JCN repeatedly railed against “left-wing dark money groups” influencing nominations, even though the group had explicitly claimed credit for the confirmations of Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh just a few months prior.
According to Open Secrets, Judicial Crisis Network was a key player in the right’s push to influence state-level judiciaries and legal systems. This push aimed to create a “friendlier legal climate” for conservative and business groups. With funding from the Wellspring Committee, Judicial Crisis Network began to spend large sums in state elections in 2010. Open Secrets credits Leonard Leo’s Federalist Society for providing the “intellectual heft” for this effort.
A spokesperson for the nonpartisan Brennan Center said JCN is “actively engaged in a campaign to take over state supreme courts.” In response to criticism, JCN president Carrie Severino said that “the average voter doesn’t need to trace every dollar to figure out whether to vote for a candidate.”
The 85 Fund (formerly known as the Judicial Education Project) is a 501(c)(3) organization that operates within a network of conservative nonprofits aiming to influence the federal judiciary and the American political system more broadly. The 85 Fund was founded in 2011 by prominent Republican operatives and is closely linked to its sister organization the Judicial Crisis Network and Trump judicial advisor and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo.
Leonard Leo was “widely known as a confidant to Trump” and served as Trump’s Supreme Court Advisor during the nominations of Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch.
Leo has been called “arguably the most powerful figure in the federal justice system” with his “network of interlocking nonprofits” that aggressively support conservative judges.
Leo has personal and professional ties to Justice Clarence Thomas, who is an original faculty member of the Federalist Society and 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 Judicial Crisis Network, have paid CRC for public relations work over the years. Since 2014, Judicial Crisis Network has paid Creative Response Concepts over $23 million.
|Creative Response Concepts||$7,679,331.00||2020|
|Creative Response Concepts||$4,257,511.00||2019|
|Creative Response Concepts||$3,485,151.00||2018|
|Creative Response Concepts||$3,348,638.00||2017|
|Creative Response Concepts||$3,049,615.00||2016|
|Creative Response Concepts||$1,438,439.00||2015|
|Creative Response Concepts||$382,814.00||2014|
BH Group is a limited liability company formed in 2016 in Virginia. According to a 2018 IRS filing for the Leo-linked Rule of Law Trust, Leo owned more than 35% of the BH Group at the time. The BH Group’s Virginia business records do not list any staff; however, Leonard Leo was identified as an “authorized person” in a 2022 filing update with the Virginia State Corporation Commission regarding the organization’s registered agent. Leo also listed BH Group as his employer in a 2018 campaign finance filing. Since 2016, Judicial Crisis Network has paid BH Group over $4.4 million.
In 2018 The Washington Post reported that Scott Pruitt, then-head of the EPA, “had a top aide help contact Republican donors who might offer his wife a job,” who ended up being an independent contractor with JCN. A JCN spokesperson said, “the position came about after the group received her résumé from Leonard Leo.” Pruitt and Leo are “longtime close friends,” and Pruitt founded the Rule of Law Defense Fund and chaired the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), both of which have received money from JCN and other Leo nonprofits.
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