St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
Leonard Leo may be the most influential person Americans have never heard of. As executive vice president of the Federalist Society, Leo is guiding President Donald Trump’s nominations of federal judges. U.S. News & World Report calls Leo the “judicial puppet master.”
There are currently more than 140 vacancies among the 1,770 seats in the U.S. judicial system — from special courts for matters such as tax appeals and bankruptcies to the district courts, where most cases originate, to 13 courts of appeals and finally nine seats on the Supreme Court.
Trump so far has nominated 60 judges — 74 percent of them white men. The Senate has begun confirming them at a fast clip, focusing on appellate-level judges where a lot of law is made.
Nearly all federal judges get lifetime appointments. If Trump fills all the vacant seats, his impact on the judiciary will last for decades. In 2013, Democrats, when they still controlled the Senate, got rid of the 60-vote threshold for confirming judges. So there’s little they can do but drag out the process the same way Republicans did when Barack Obama was president. They can’t stop it.
Trump is working from a list prepared at his request by Leo. The Federalist Society, which started as a fringe group of law students in 1982, has become a powerful organization of 70,000 lawyers and affiliated partners intent on restoring what they see as the original intent of the Constitution. They have played the long game and played it well.
They are skeptical of rights not enumerated in the Constitution, including reproductive and gay rights. They tend to be friendly to business interests as befits an organization heavily funded by corporate money. Among its members it has counted Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John G. Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. Leo shepherded the latter three through the confirmation process.
Whatever their judicial philosophies, Roberts, Alito and Gorsuch were highly qualified. The same can’t be said for all of Trump’s recent appointments. Consider Brett Talley, 36, whose nomination to a district judgeship in Alabama cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 9. He’s never served as a judge at any level. He has only three years’ legal experience and has never tried a case.
His chief qualification appears to be his marriage to Ann Donaldson, chief of staff to White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II. Talley did not include this bit of nepotism on his conflict of interest questionnaire. The American Bar Association, which traditionally reviews nominees’ judicial qualifications, rated Talley “not qualified.” Three other Trump nominees also earned this rare distinction, including L. Steven Grasz of Omaha, nominated to the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Elections have consequences. Long after Trump is gone, Americans will be suffering them.