When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was promoting a new version of his 2007 memoir last October, he made an interesting choice for his public relations firm, a company run by one of the most influential in conservative legal circles: Leonard Leo.
Leo, the former head of the Federalist Society and a top fundraiser for right-wing justice activist groups, wasn’t just responsible for Thomas’s memoir; Leo’s public relations company, CRC Advisors, was also tasked with promoting a documentary about Thomas, and the company was the registered agent for four Thomas-centric web domains.
The point of this choice is not that Leo’s company was unable to handle the job, far from it. What makes Thomas’ decision remarkable is that Leo has a vested interest in the Supreme Court and his dark money network is actively trying to influence decisions.
Revelations of Leo and Thomas’ business relationship offer fresh evidence of ties between sitting judge and widely regarded man most powerful conservative judicial activist in the countryside. And while it may not be an immediately damning gunshot, experts say the connection – where Thomas is likely to win financially – raises further questions about the deep and shady ties of arch-conservative justice. with a sprawling network of black money organizations and right-wing activist groups, many of which have business ahead of him.
The news also comes at a time when public confidence in the Supreme Court’s impartiality is waning. This faith struck a historic low last September, the month before the audiobook press release.
Paul Collins, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of several books on the High Court, called Thomas’ specific choice of Leo’s business out of all the available options “strange”. and “unnecessary”.
“It signals that this world of the Federalist Society is even smaller than we thought,” Collins told The Daily Beast.
This world was already considered tiny, with Leo’s hand never seeming far from the affairs of court.
The first of a select group of hyperconservative legal activists, Leo raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past three decades on behalf of right-wing black money groups to influence the federal court system and the Supreme Court. He advised and persuaded Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump in their appointments of Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrettand Chief Justice John Roberts—and prepared Judge Thomas for his investiture hearings.
Leo is also the hub of a network of black money groups that routinely and anonymously finance and join arguments before the Supreme Court—fund what researchers have called an “amicus flotilla”.
Its network has recently taken the form of sprawling legal effort to influence election administrationincluding misleading allegations of irregularities. The Federalist Society, the legal activist group synonymous with Leo, has been called “the most influential advocacy organization in Washington.”
But Leo’s affiliations with the court are especially strengthened when it comes to Judge Thomas.
Leo made Thomas the godfather of one of his children and, according to The New York Times, hosted Justice on vacation during his New England getaway. Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, was also the subject of a recent profile speak New Yorkerby Jane Mayer, titled “Is Ginni Thomas a Threat to the Supreme Court?” It detailed the staggering breadth and depth of the judge’s wife’s ties to conservative groups.
Some of these organizations are linked to Leo and, as Mayer reported, many have cases in court. At least one of them has Tapped CRC manage public relations.
Leo, whom Ginni Thomas considers a mentor, joined CRC Advisors in 2020, after leaving his position as Vice President of the Federalist Society. (He still co-chairs the council.) Leo said to Axios when the CRC planned to inject a “minimum of $10 million” into court advocacy matters ahead of the 2020 election.
“Leo and his CRC advisers are leading a multi-pronged black money operation designed to meet the priorities of right-wing donor interests.”
— Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Neither CRC advisers nor the Supreme Court responded to a request for comment.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a progressive who has long called for clarification of the influence of black money on the justice system, said Leo’s group, which handles public relations for Thomas, appears to be trying to clean up after his own messes.
“Leo and his CRC advisers are at the helm of a multi-pronged dark money operation designed to meet the priorities of right-wing donor interests,” Whitehouse told The Daily Beast. “This operation spent hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, to capture the Supreme Court. Now he is trying to bolster the credibility of his right-wing justices in the face of growing public frustration with what Judge Sotomayor calls the “stench” of partisanship emanating from the court. »
CRC press release for Thomas’s memoir—My grandfather’s son— promotes a new release in audiobook and Kindle formats. He also quotes two Conservative activists and informs the media that they can contact a CRC adviser manager if they wish to arrange an interview with one of them.
One of the officials, Mark Paoletta, worked on the appointment of Judge Thomas; the other, Carrie Severino, worked for him and currently short the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group related to Leo who paid millions to influence judicial appointments.
CRC Advisors was also chosen promote the critical documentary thomas, created equalwhich Variety called “a two-hour infomercial for Clarence Thomas’ decency, competence and model conservative aspirationalism.”
(CNBC reported that the documentary’s producer – a Trump appointee – had made donations to his nonprofit to help fund his private production company.)
The CRC has also registered several web domains linked to Judge Thomas, including “clarencethomas.org”, “clarencethomas.us”, “justicethomas.us” and “theanitahillcase.com”, a reference to the credible allegations of sexual harassment that marked the bitter nomination hearings of Thomas in 1991.
The relationship carries the added context of Leo’s activism, fundraising, and connection to the cases in court. This extends not only to the Federalist Society, but to the CRC itself, which within months of the memoir’s promotion issued several press releases about attempts to influence Supreme Court cases, including a petition to overturn the vaccine mandate.
Collins, a UMASS professor, noted that after the difficult appointments of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, the public has been particularly sensitive to ethical concerns.
“Many people, including the Chief Justice, are concerned about the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in the eyes of the American public,” Collins said, referring to Chief Justice John Roberts. Annual Report last year, where Roberts took the unusual step of reprimanding federal judges for ethical breaches, writing that “we expect judges to adhere to the highest standards.”
“The continued exposure of actual or potential conflicts of interest could be problematic for the court, especially when we see ties like this between a judge and the Federalist Society, which plays such an important role in the legal world” , said Collins.
Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert at New York University School of Law, said while Leo’s connection to the CRC and Thomas is worth reporting, it doesn’t hit an official ethics bar – in part, he said, because the bar is so much higher for Supreme Court justices than for any other federal judge.
“The rules of ethics governing judges are much narrower than the rules governing other federal judges. So on the issue of disqualification, in this case, it’s too watered down, because this case doesn’t suggest that those rules were violated,” Gillers explained, noting that “Ginni Thomas is a class in its own right; nothing comes close to harming our courts.
On the CRC issue, Gillers said, “There’s a difference between if something is newsworthy and if it crosses a legal line. This instance is newsworthy, but it doesn’t cross a line.
“Thomas of course has the right to hire a PR company to sell his book and draw attention to him. Now that may seem inappropriate to a lot of people, but it’s not a legal issue,” he said. Gillers said “In my view, judges should not act in a way that casts suspicion on the court just because they can.”
Artemus Ward, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University who has written extensively on Supreme Court politics, said the case could raise political issues for Thomas.
Ward pointed to a 1960s conservative campaign to force the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a liberal justice “being harassed by conservatives because of certain alleged ethical violations regarding his finances, such as collecting fees of speakers”.
“It was never quite clear what the money was for or whether he had crossed ethical lines, but the Tories held hearings to oust him from power because they saw him as a liberal buddy,” he said. “The question with Thomas is whether the end game for the Democrats is to oust him from power before he’s ready to go.”