Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court – a huge win for conservatives – was the result of the hard work of President Trump and his team, numerous conservative organizations, and hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists across the country. But one man in particular deserves special recognition for the standout role he played, not only in Gorsuch’s confirmation process, but also in President Trump’s selection process.
It is no exaggeration to say that Neil Gorsuch very likely would not be a Supreme Court justice today had it not been for Leonard Leo’s tireless efforts over the past year.
Leo, who serves as the Executive Vice President of the well-known conservative legal organization The Federalist Society, set out to protect the Supreme Court seat almost as soon as Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last February.
In the days immediately following Scalia’s death, it seemed near certain that the conservative justice would be replaced on the bench by a liberal Obama nominee – a devastating prospect to most conservatives.
For nearly 30 years, Justice Scalia had consistently provided guidance for how the Court should approach the U.S. Constitution. His insistence over the years that his colleagues on the bench look closely at the Constitution shaped not only the outcome of countless Court decisions, but actually the way the Court reflected on the founders’ intent and the plain text of the Constitution. Scalia’s influence on the Court continues to be felt today.
Leonard Leo worked closely with grassroots groups last winter to ensure Scalia’s seat would remain vacant until after the election so the American people could have a say in the selection of the next justice. It was an effort that Tea Party Patriots, the organization I head, overwhelmingly supported. Our position was that Scalia’s seat was too important to be filled by a lame-duck president during his final months in office. The American people, we argued, should have the opportunity to weigh in at the polls in November. Leonard Leo helped drive that national conversation and worked with members of Congress and grassroots groups to bolster that message.
Keeping the seat vacant was only the first part of the battle, of course. The second battle – and it was an even heftier lift – was to ensure that the new justice would be just as steadfast in adhering to the Constitution as had been Scalia. Given the preeminent role Scalia played on the Court for three decades, finding such a person could have proven a daunting challenge. But Leonard Leo, with his close relationships with the nation’s most brilliant conservative jurists, was able to help put forth a list of top-notch legal minds in the mold of Antonin Scalia.
How, exactly, did Leo find himself in the position to be called upon to create such a list? In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Leo recounted that last spring, then-candidate Donald Trump enlisted his help to create a list of exceptional men and women who could replace Scalia on the bench – and whose names would provide assurance to conservatives across the country that candidate Trump was serious about protecting Scalia’s legacy.
Leo immediately recognized the novelty of such an approach. This would be the first time in American political history that a presidential candidate had ever released such a list. Leo also recognized the brilliance of what President Trump wanted to do by branding himself through that list.
Trump used simple criteria to determine who should be on the list. According to Leo’s interview with The New Yorker, Trump was clear that he wanted people who would “interpret the Constitution the way the Framers meant it to be.” In other words, he wanted a list of well-respected Scalia-type jurists across the country.
The mark of good leadership often comes down to selecting the right people for the right tasks. Leonard Leo was precisely the right person to spearhead the creation of the potential nominee list, and conservatives should be thankful that candidate Trump wisely sought Leo’s help.
Since its founding in 1982, The Federalist Society has fulfilled its unique mission of propelling conservative lawyers’ careers while promoting the primacy of the rule of law and individual liberty. Leo has been an integral part of that mission, helping to expand the organization’s network and influence. The rise of smart legal scholars to positions of prominence – from key attorney general positions in the states to the federal courts – is no accident. Leo has worked for years to identify talented young conservatives in the legal profession, and he has cultivated and mentored those individuals and prepared them for clerkships, attorney general spots, other state-level positions, the federal bench, and yes, even the Supreme Court.
For Leonard Leo, protecting individual liberty and the rule of law for future generations is more than his day job – it’s his personal mission. Thanks to Leo’s work, Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court and, what’s even better, there is an active pipeline of conservative jurists ready to be promoted and tackle new assignments.
Conservatives are fortunate that Leonard Leo has been such an avid and ardent defender of individual liberty, and that he has never deviated from his long-term vision that conservatives who share Scalia’s worldview should be prevalent across the entire legal landscape.