Reporter 1: The Court has ruled that states can decide whether abortion should be legal or illegal.
Speaker 1: Roe v. Wade is history.
Brooke Gladstone: The conservative majority on today's Supreme Court has been redefining Americans' constitutional rights in one decision after another, and one largely unknown man has played an outsized role in making it so.
Ginni Thomas: Leonard Leo has single-handedly changed the face of the judiciary.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, an investigation into the man who spent decades working toward a conservative takeover of America's courts. Because this is about way more than just the US Supreme Court.
Amanda Hollis-Brusky: The Right's revolution in the United States didn't happen just because you magically got five justices on the Court who agreed with you.
Brooke Gladstone: It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Marshal of the Court: Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.
Brooke Gladstone: Next week on the first Monday in October, the Supreme Court will be open for business.
Marshal of the Court: God save the United States and this Honorable Court.
Brooke Gladstone: Whatever the Court decides in the upcoming term, the body led by Chief Justice John Roberts has already radically changed American life.
Reporter 2: We begin tonight with the Supreme Court striking down affirmative action and reshaping college admissions.
Reporter 3: The Court's conservative majority has struck down President Joe Biden's plan to forgive $400 billion in student debt.
Reporter 4: The justices ruled in the family's favor, weakening the water pollution law.
Reporter 5: The Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled that a Christian graphic artist who wants to design wedding websites can refuse to work with same-sex couples.
Reporter 1: In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court has ruled that states can decide whether abortion should be legal or illegal.
Speaker 1: Roe v. Wade is history.
Brooke Gladstone: And now a quick recap of how we got here. The Court's current 6-3 conservative majority that helped deliver those rulings was the product of long-term planning, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and luck. The full story runs far deeper than that, and a lot of it can be traced back to one man who's marshaled a vast effort to change who serves on the Court, what cases they hear, and how they rule.
Stephen Minnis: Although Mr. Leo may not be a household name, his influence on America is almost unbelievable.
Brooke Gladstone: In May of 2023, Leonard Leo was the commencement speaker at a small Catholic college in Kansas. Benedictine College President Stephen Minnis rhapsodized about Leo's behind-the-scenes role in confirming all six conservatives currently on the US Supreme Court.
Stephen Minnis: But more importantly than the wins, it is those Justices, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, who he helped to get into place, that were able last year to accomplish what the pro-life movement had been working and praying for nearly 50 years to finally, unequivocally, overturn Roe v. Wade.
Brooke Gladstone: If you have heard his name before, it's likely as the man behind the list of potential Supreme Court nominees presented to Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for president. In 2018 during the confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Clarence Thomas joked about Leo's influence.
Justice Clarence Thomas: Now, Leonard, since you're the number three most powerful person in the world, we have to--
Leonard Leo: Right. God help us. God help us.
Brooke Gladstone: Thomas didn't share who he thinks are the top two. Leo and Thomas were speaking at a conference hosted by the Federalist Society, an outfit founded in 1982 that promotes conservative readings of the law. Leo is now co-chair of the board. He's also helmed or been involved with over a dozen political nonprofits, runs a business, and has advised Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump. About a year ago, Leo won a prestigious award from a major Catholic group. His faith has informed his political philosophy, his conservative movement is ascendant, but Leo sounded besieged.
Leonard Leo: Catholicism faces vile and immoral current-day barbarians, secularists, and bigots. These barbarians can be known by their signs. They vandalized and burnt our churches after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. From coast to coast, they are conducting a coordinated and large-scale campaign to drive us from the communities they want to dominate.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, as reported by ProPublica in March, Leo has designs on much more than the makeup of the Supreme Court. Here's Leo in a promotional video unearthed by ProPublica.
Leonard Leo: I spent close to 30 years, if not more, helping to build the conservative legal movement. And at some point or another, I just said to myself, "Well, if this can work for law, why can't it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?"
Brooke Gladstone: And as was also reported by ProPublica, Leo has the money to turn words into action.
Reporter 6: In a stunning exposé, ProPublica and The Lever have revealed how Barre Seid, a 90-year-old conservative industrialist from Chicago, has given his fortune to a nonprofit run by Leonard Leo.
Brooke Gladstone: $1.6 billion. The broad outlines of what Leo has accomplished so far are now known, but the details are harder to see. The extent to which his influence has reached throughout the legal system and into the states, how he planted the seeds decades ago, how he exercised bare-knuckled power when needed, even once threatening that a sitting governor could face the "fury of the conservative movement." There are a lot of moving parts to this story.
That's why we teamed up with ProPublica to produce an investigative series we're calling We Don't Talk About Leonard. ProPublica's Andrea Bernstein, Andy Kroll, and Ilya Marritz will be our guides. Andrea and Ilya were co-hosts of the podcasts Will Be Wild and Trump, Inc., and are both former WNYC colleagues. Andy Kroll is an investigative reporter for ProPublica, and author of a book about the murder of Seth Rich called A Death on W Street. The first episode is reported by Andrea and Andy.
Andrea Bernstein: To get to Northeast Harbor, Maine, you drive down from the mainland across a bridge and onto an island shaped a bit like a lobster claw, then south to a small cove with a long dock jutting out. It's summer. Day is turning to evening, but the sun is still high, glinting off blue-green water. The smell of lupine wafts down to the rocky shore. It's June 23rd of 2023. Andy and I have come down here to meet Alison Schaefer.
Andy Kroll: Check, one, two.
Andrea Bernstein: Okay, we're good.
Andrea Bernstein: Schaefer, who's a summer resident here, wants to tell us about something unusual she saw a year ago this very evening when she was walking her dog on the dock.
Alison Schaefer: The sun was setting, it was warm out, it was nice out, and we came down and walked past this fleet house and onto the dock and down to the floats so we could look around and see what was going on on the ocean, which is not generally very much.
Andrea Bernstein: Something caught her eye.
Alison Schaefer: One of those small little RIBs. It's like an inflatable boat- they're inflatable boats, but they're very solid and they go really fast. They're planing hulls, so they kind of bounce over the waves.
Andrea Bernstein: A 29-foot Response Boat with a bright trim and very clear lettering: US Coast Guard.
Alison Schaefer: First of all, there are not ever Coast Guard boats here, ever.
Andrea Bernstein: Also, it had its engines on.
Alison Schaefer: Which struck me as odd because it seemed like such an emergency stance, like they'd have to respond to something, stat.
Andy Kroll: Someone else saw the boat that evening. Another summer resident, a financial consultant named Francis Weld. He saw federal agents patrolling, he told us, with guns slung kind of perpendicular to their bodies. Standing on the dock a year later, Schaefer points across the water to a wide green lawn leading up to an 11-bedroom Tudor-style mansion. It's Leonard Leo's house.
Alison Schaefer: It happened to be the night that Leonard Leo was having a party, and he had a big white tent, quite fancy structured tents like people have for weddings. You could hear the party, the clinking glasses, low hum of conversation, that kind of thing.
Andrea Bernstein: On the patio, there's a rowboat filled with ice and sparkling water and Pol Roger Reserve champagne. Each guest is handed a freshly poured glass. A sommelier has selected three more wines to go with dinner. He was the former food and beverage director for the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC.
All around the party, at the end of the dock, by the champagne boat, in the house, there's security wearing dark suits, earpieces. US Marshals are protecting high-profile members of the judiciary, and at this party, there are some two dozen federal and state judges from across the country, the US Marshals Service told us. There's a former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, leading conservative academics, and the leadership of George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School. It's an intellectual hub for training conservative lawyers and judges and advancing a free market, anti-regulation agenda.
Andy Kroll: Unlike the judges in attendance who preside over their courtrooms like personal fiefdoms, Leo has never served a day on the bench. Unlike the other lawyers, he's never argued a case in court. He's never held elected office, or a senior White House appointment, or run a law school. On paper, he's less important than almost all of his guests, but at this event, someone who was there told us, "A lot of people are trying to talk to Leonard Leo." He's a squat man with owlish glasses and an elegant suit.
The judges have come to Maine for a week-long conference about conservative legal and economic principles, sponsored by the Antonin Scalia Law School. It was Leo who secured permission from the Scalia family to name the school after the late Supreme Court Justice, and it was Leo who raised the tens of millions of dollars that helped bring the school to newfound prominence.
Andrea Bernstein: Some of the most influential and controversial federal and state judges are in Maine for the Scalia Law conference, and many of them do owe or could owe career advancement to Leonard Leo. There's Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, whose name was on Leo's list of potential Supreme Court nominees for President Trump. He's been described as a Second Amendment extremist. There are Trump appointees, Federalist Society members whose names were vetted by close Leo allies in the White House. Two members of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Kyle Duncan and Cory Wilson, both fiercely anti-abortion. Wendy Berger, the Florida federal judge who would uphold Governor Ron DeSantis' so-called Don't Say Gay law. Also there, North Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger, Jr. No relation. On the night of the party, he's in the minority on that state's highest court, but a group funded by Leo is spending big money to change that. They'll succeed, and in January of 2023, swing North Carolina's Supreme Court to the Right.
After the champagne pouring, there's dinner, but the guests keep asking for champagne. The vibe was, "Let me show you the best of the best for my friends," a person who was there told us. When the guests sit down, there are menus with raised seals dusted with gold. Leo makes remarks, so does Henry Butler, the former Dean of Scalia Law School. They express mutual admiration. Their accomplishments couldn't have happened without each other. The mood is jubilant.
Andy Kroll: It's late June of 2022, and there's a lot for this crowd to celebrate. The Supreme Court has just handed conservatives a string of victories on guns and religion. And six weeks before the party--
Chris Hayes: A highly, indeed, as far as I can tell, utterly unprecedented leak from the Supreme Court.
Andy Kroll: A draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito overturning the 50-year constitutional right to an abortion. It called Roe v. Wade "egregiously wrong from the start."
Andrea Bernstein: Inside the mansion, Leonard Leo and the judges and lawyers and the Scalia Law School leaders keep partying. There's a cheese course and a tasting of American rare whiskeys chilled with cold stones. One guest gets so tipsy, he needs help getting up a flight of stairs. The affair ends well into the night, much later than expected.
Judges Wilson, Duncan, Wendy Berger, and Justice Phil Berger, Jr. did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The sommelier hung up on us when we asked about the party. A spokesperson for George Mason University's Scalia School of Law confirmed the facts but declined to comment. When we shared our reporting with Leo, he didn't dispute it.
The morning after the party, June 24th, 2022, Americans learn that it's official, the US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. When Leonard Leo steps out for his regular walk, it's into a world he has remade, and he's not done.
Brooke Gladstone: Coming up, Andrea and Andy go out and search of some biographical details to help paint a fuller picture of who Leonard Leo is today.
Snehal Shah: When you're that age, you want to be a baseball player or a policeman. Nobody says they want to be lawyers at 10 years old, but he did. [chuckles]
Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media.