Leonard Leo

The political powerbroker at the center of the Shadow Network’s efforts to undermine church-state separation and our democracy

The Puppetmaster

When we talk about the billion-dollar Shadow Network attacking church-state separation, religious freedom and the rights we hold dear, one name rises to the top: Leonard Leo.

Leo is a political powerbroker at the center of a tangled web of conservative organizations, dark-money groups, and for-profit consulting firms, which sought to capture the courts so they could achieve victory in their crusade against abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, public education, racial justice and democracy.

One former aide described Leo’s strategy: “[Leo] figured out twenty years ago that conservatives had lost the culture war. Abortion, gay rights, contraception – conservatives didn’t have a chance if public opinion prevailed. So, they needed to stack the courts.”

Stacking the courts

Stack the courts he did. Over three decades leading the Federalist Society, leveraging the Judicial Crisis Network and other lobbying organizations, advising former presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and cultivating personal friendships with current justices, Leo gets the lion’s share of credit for securing lifetime Supreme Court appointments for five of the six members of the court’s ultra-conservative bloc. Not to mention the 200+ federal judges Trump appointed – nearly one-third of the federal judiciary. Leo-linked groups spent more than a half-billion dollars packing the courts from 2014 to 2020.

There’s a reason Justice Thomas called Leo the “Number 3 most powerful person in the world.”

Funding anti-democratic policies at all levels of government

Leo’s new project involves the  Teneo Network, which ProPublica described as “a Federalist Society for everything.” Teneo has been funded by other Leo-linked groups, one of which made news last year for receiving a $1.6 billion donation – believed to be the biggest single donation to a political nonprofit ever.

Leo’s takeover of the courts benefited members of the Shadow Network, some of which he has direct ties to:

  • Teneo’s cofounders include two attorneys who worked for or were affiliated with the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Leo himself sits on Becket’s board and reportedly twice saved Becket from financial insolvency by tapping his network for huge cash infusions.
  • Through the Judicial Crisis Network, Leo is tied to former Justice Thomas clerk Carrie Severino and her husband Roger, who also worked at Becket. Following Roger’s stint in the Trump administration – during which AU fought his policies that attempted to deny people health care on the basis of others’ religious beliefs – he’s back at the Heritage Foundation, where he previously led a DeVos-funded initiative to weaponize religious freedom.
  • First Liberty Institute, the Christian Nationalist legal group that opposed AU in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Supreme Court case last year, has paid Leo’s for-profit consulting firm at least several hundred thousand dollars for consulting work in recent years. First Liberty’s president and Leo both are members of the influential Council for National Policy – what AU’s Rob Boston called the “scariest Christian Nationalist group you’ve never heard of.” Justice Thomas’ wife, Ginni, is also a CNP member.
White Christian Nationalism doesn't want a more religious society. It wants to create two classes of people: conservative, white Christians and everyone else. The goal is to codify white Christian privilege. Rachel Laser, President and CEO

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