Kudos to The Daily Beast and reporter Jay Michaelson for uncovering a deep conspiracy to change America into a theocracy by placing Catholic extremists into the Supreme Court.
Yes, that's actually the gist of "The Secrets of Leonard Leo, the Man Behind Trump’s Supreme Court Pick." The alternate headline is even more laughably overwrought: "The Secretive Puppetmaster Behind Trump's Supreme Court." This is not a story filed under "Opinion," by the way, so it's evidently a verifiable fact that a shadowy puppetmaster controls Trump's Supreme Court.
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The facts are this: Leonard Leo is the vice-president of the Federalist Society and a staunch conservative and originalist. Leo played a key role in crafting the list of judges that then-candidate Donald Trump promised to stick to if elected president. He then served on the transition team and the White House advising Trump on the Neil Gorsuch nomination, the same role he played during the Bush administration.
But Michaelson would like you to know that Leo's a "Catholic fundamentalist," he "says Mass every day," he's a member of the "secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta," a member of an organization of "far-right Catholics," part of a group of "extremely conservative Catholic activists," allied with members of the "extreme-right Catholic League," the "extreme, ultraorthodox Catholic sect" Opus Dei, and "extremely devout, extremely conservative Catholics."
Have I mentioned he's Catholic?
It's telling right off the bat that so many of the breathless descriptions of Leo's faith play fast and loose with terminology in a way that jumps out at someone actually versed in Christian beliefs. "Fundamentalism" is exclusive to Protestantism, making "Catholic fundamentalists" a rare breed indeed. Priests "say Mass," parishioners like Leo do not. "The Christian right has been written about a lot, but hardly anyone talks about the Catholic right," a source tells the Beast, as though "Christian" and "Catholic" were distinct.
The sloppiness is everywhere. Possible Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett is the member of a "far-right Catholic sect called the People of Prayer," we're told. That Michaelson can't even get the name of People of Praise right indicates he probably actually hasn't done much research into it. Supposed Catholic extremist Carrie Severino is described as "the husband of Roger Severino," which I think might contradict a few Church teachings.
Like the misguided dig against People of Praise, the rest of the piece involves reading ill will into mundane or benign activity by Catholic organizations Leo is affiliated with. Take this description of the centuries-old Knights of Malta:
On the surface, the primary work of the order is humanitarian work around the globe, but it is also home to noted Catholic conservatives including Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a frequent foe of the reformist pope.
This is just a non-sequitur. The Knights can be both a humanitarian organization and also have conservative members. There's no "but" here. You know what other organization does extensive humanitarian work and counts conservative Catholic bishops among its members? The Catholic Church.
Or take this description of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty:
The Becket Fund gained national fame for being the lawyers of Hobby Lobby, the evangelical-owned crafts chain who won a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that qualified health plans include contraception coverage.
Named for Catholic martyr Thomas Becket, it is run mostly by far-right Catholics and places Catholic concerns at the center of its work.
This is a characterization that would shock anyone familiar with the Becket Fund's work, famous for being blind to religion or creed. The Becket Fund has litigated on behalf of mosques and synagogues that were unjustly blocked by local bigots, the right of Muslims to wear beards in prison or as police officers, Sikh soldiers who wish to wear religious garb, the rights of Jews to make contracts according to their faith, the rights of Santeria priests to religious slaughter in their own home, and the rights of Native Americans to protect ancient burial grounds. The group of "far-right" Catholics (who Michaelson never bothers to actually identify) even opposed Trump's Muslim ban.
No doubt aware of the Becket Fund's unimpeachable record, Michaelson's quote cites a former employee who says that really this all about protecting Catholics.
"When I was there… the halls at the Becket Fund were lined with anti-Catholic cartoons from the 1880s and 1890s… I was told that the philosophy is ‘we protect everybody, because if we don’t stop [liberals], they’ll be at our door next.’"
Carter noted that "At Becket, everything has precedent for Catholics eventually. Hobby Lobby were evangelicals, but the issue was contraception."
Really? The right of Jim Thorpe's descendants to have him buried on tribal land will one day impact Catholics? Only in the sense that infringements of religious liberty might lead to other infringements of religious liberty. So now we're at the point where we're supposed to be horrified that religious individuals are defending others' religious liberty because it might one day be self-serving, maybe.
In fairness to Michaelson, there's also plenty of bad faith allegations thrown at Leo's Federalist Society divorced from the specific allegations of enslavement to Rome.
Sometimes thought of as a legal association, the Federalist Society is actually a large right-wing network that grooms conservative law students still in law school (sponsoring everything from free burrito lunches to conferences, speakers, and journals), links them together, mentors them, finds them jobs, and eventually places them in courts and in government. It’s like a large-scale fraternity, knitted together by ideological conformity.
So… it's a legal association.
The Federalist Society has mainstreamed ideas that were once considered intellectual outliers: that most of the New Deal and administrative state are unconstitutional, that corporations have free speech and free religion rights, that women and LGBT people are not "protected classes" under constitutional law, and that there is no right to privacy implied by the due process clause of the Constitution (i.e., banning abortion, contraception, and gay marriage are entirely constitutional).
Two decades ago, hardly anyone in the legal academy took these ideas seriously.
It is mind-boggling to me that Michaelson believes this is the case. Forget gay marriage; two decades ago, Supreme Court precedent allowed making gay sex punishable by law. Four Justices signed onto an opinion that would have reversed Roe v. Wade. Corporations had been filing and winning free speech cases for decades. Even to the extent that the legal academy leans left, it is laughable to claim no one "took seriously" originalist arguments on these fronts. They had to.
"[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."
This is exactly wrong. For many originalists, public opinion, in the form of duly elected legislatures, should be allowed to prevail on issues where the Constitution is silent. Should cases like Roe v. Wade or Obergefall be overturned, the effect would be to return the ability to decide these issues to the people.
Alas, the truth about the Federalist Society—that thousands of lawyers and students joined a group of like-minded individuals and boosted each others careers because they shared the same ideas—is boring and doesn't get you published in the Daily Beast. So instead, it has to be a plot to stuff the Supreme Court full of Roman loyalists.
And a secret plot at that. Leo is a "secretive puppetmaster," according to the Daily Beast headline. "Leonard is very good at staying in the shadows, getting stuff done without having it traced back to him, leaving no fingerprints," the story quotes a former staffer saying. When the Heritage Foundation got credit for creating Trump's list of judges, that was a "tactic of obfuscation" on Leo's part. The White House also tried to "downplay the Federalist Society’s influence."
If indeed the Federalist Society's involvement was some great secret, someone forgot to tell all the players. Literally the first time Trump announced that he would be sticking to a list, he said "I’m getting names. The Federalist people. Some very good people. The Heritage Foundation." Leo's Federalist Society bio notes that "he has advised President Trump on judicial selection." He gave a lengthy interview to The New Yorker during the 2017 Gorsuch confirmation discussing his role in creating the list. If you tuned into ABC News' This Week Sunday, you would have heard Leo introduced as "the man who crafted Trump's shortlist."
"To be sure, none of this is to repeat the odious claims of anti-Catholicism of papist conspiracies and dual loyalty," Michaelson throws in as a disclaimer. Oh, never mind then! I bet some of his best friends are Catholic.