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Leonard Leo and the Republican Inquisition

For anyone who thinks democracy is still an idea worth pursuing, Leonard Leo is a living nightmare.

I had hoped never to write about him, but as his star continues to rise I feel compelled to spread the word. His low profile has served him well over many years, but now we need to know him better.

Leonard Leo, for those who don’t know, is the brains behind the Federalist Society, the lavishly-funded cabal of right-wing ‘originalist’ lawyers committed to marching the country back to the Middle Ages. But unlike the assorted crazies and half-wits now so prevalent on the right, Leo is smart, strategic, and has a Who’s Who of wingnut billionaires on speed dial.

His game is judicial appointments, and even before he got all that help — first from Mitch McConnell, then from Donald Trump — he was busy remaking the federal judiciary into a radical force for values widely reviled by most Americans.

The goal — never exactly hidden, but now totally out in the open — is to roll back the various civil rights that have accrued, over the last century, to women, Blacks, gays, union members, and other “others.” All in the name of a radical religious agenda seemingly modeled on the Spanish Inquisition.

Leo has been, in one way or another, heavily implicated in the nomination and confirmation of the Supreme Court’s six grand inquisitors, starting with Clarence Thomas in 1991. He has since been a major behind-the-scenes player in the appointments of Scalia, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett.

But that’s just the high-profile stuff. He has, over that time, assembled a broad network of interlocking non-profit companies that methodically go about the business of undermining rights we have long taken for granted.

Through these companies, he hires law firms, lobbying firms, data firms, and rightist consultants to do his bidding. He has a marketing machine with a long and sordid record of hawking dubious judicial nominees to a gullible public.

But above all, he commands a vast fund-raising apparatus that finances the whole network.

All this gives him instant access to Republican senators, congressmen, and their staffers. He calls, they jump.

So when we speak of Mitch McConnell stocking the lower courts with under-qualified ideologues — not to mention the SCOTUS seats he stole — we’re really speaking of the ongoing success of Leonard Leo.

It’s his organizations that turn young and impressionable lawyers into ideologically reliable judges. They spot promising prospects, often in law school, then place them with the right law firms, indoctrinate them in conservative dogma, and groom them for lifetime appointments to the bench. Coney Barrett is the walking embodiment of this plan.

And that’s how we ended up with Aileen Cannon, the federal judge in Florida who, last week, leaped out from well-deserved obscurity to issue the “special master” ruling in the Trump espionage case.

Famously appointed to the federal court in 2020, right after Trump lost the election, Cannon is something rare and valuable to Leonard Leo: an “ethnic” conservative — a Cuban-American with a law degree and a decent record as a prosecutor. She is, in other words, a diversity hire, welcomed into the Federalist Society early in her career, and ultimately rewarded with a federal judgeship. Almost as if there were no racism in the Republican party.

I’ll leave it to others to explain Cannon’s special master ruling, which is legally dubious to the point of farce. 

I'd rather speculate about her motivations. Some say she saw this case as her big break, her chance to be a right-wing hero, her stepping-stone to future court appointments. I’m not so sure.

I’m thinking, instead, that this turkey ended up on her plate by the luck of the draw, and she’d much rather it hadn’t. Surely she knows what happens to everyone Trump touches, especially in the legal profession. This case has only the flimsiest of upsides, but it does offer a clear path to disgrace and disbarment.

So whether she was told what to do — which is a felony — or, more likely, knew exactly what was expected of her, her job now is to fall on her sword.

She is to delay, by any means necessary, the steamrolling investigation into Trump’s heinous espionage antics. Any risk to her career or reputation — let alone to the nuclear secrets of the free world — is secondary to giving Trump a few more weeks of grifting.

So Cannon dutifully conjured, from thin air, legal arguments she knows are transparently bogus. From them she crafted a decision as blatantly dishonest as anything Alito himself could have written. She compromised her integrity — and any shred of professionalism — to make suspect rulings that, one way or another, will define her forever. Only in a fully-realized Republican dystopia will she have any future at all. Beyond, of course, her current lifetime appointment.

But she did her job. She slowed down, at least for now, Trump’s accelerating descent into legal quicksand.

So it’s safe to say that Leo got what he paid for. And, as of last month, he can spend a lot more going forward.

He now has another $1.5 billion or so in his war chest, thanks to a right-wing billionaire in his nineties, Barre Seid, who just donated an entire company to Leo’s newly-minted political advocacy group. It’s by far the largest political donation ever made.

In the hands of Leo and his accomplices, that kind of money is enough to upend the entire legal system. The annual interest alone will finance an entire generation of rightwing ideologues, an infestation of would-be inquisitors slithering their way up the judicial ladder.

Whether we’ve been fooling ourselves, or we’ve just been paralyzed by our constitutional powerlessness, most of us haven’t paid much attention to the subversion of the judicial branch. We’ve largely been focused on the chaos in the executive and legislative branches, where at least there are elections we can hope to influence.

But the threat coming from the judiciary is now unmistakable. Lifetime appointments have gone to truly terrible people, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. We’d like to think there are limits to how depraved the rulings of this rogue judiciary can be, yet no limits are in evidence.

Already we’re hearing talk among Republicans of a new constitution. One that’s more friendly to rich corporatists than the current one. One that gives special status to religion. One that openly favors whites and straight men. One that rolls back all those annoying rights that just gum up the legal system.

To do such a thing, a convention would need to be assembled, a new document drafted, then two-thirds of the states would need to ratify it. It would take the mother of all marketing campaigns to bring it off.

But while it’s all just talk for the moment, I have no doubt that Leonard Leo is already on the case. He has enormous resources at his disposal, and he’s not afraid to use them.

For those who would scrap the Constitution, who would revel in a theocratic society — a Republican Inquisition — Leo is the go-to guy, the one best-equipped to make it happen.

And that was before he got another $1.5 billion to work with.

 


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