Got A Brown Shirt?

Our kids all tend to be snarky. (I have no idea where they get that….)

At any rate, when a reader shared an article from Slate about the Federalist Society, it immediately reminded me of a long-ago exchange between my youngest son and another lawyer. My son had just returned to Indianapolis to practice law, and a colleague had invited him to join the local chapter of the Federalist Society. He’d declined, saying “Sorry, but I don’t have a brown shirt.

At the time, characterizing the Federalist Society as fascist was (arguably) unfair. As Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Hasen write in the linked article,

There’s nothing nefarious about like-minded people coming together to debate the issues of the day from a particular political perspective and to network with others of a similar mindset. (That’s the model of the American Constitution Society too, which engages in this activity from a progressive perspective and where we have both spoken.) Nor is there any question that groups of like-minded lawyers can and should gather together to mentor young attorneys and steer them into networks and eventually careers that will fulfill them. There’s been a recent controversy over whether it is inappropriate for federal judges to formally be a part of the Federalist Society, or the ACS, but even if these judges gave up their formal ties, the fact remains that the network and pipeline of clerkships and judgeships would remain intact. Again, none of this is new or particularly scandalous; Until recently, the biggest difference between the Federalist Society and ACS was less what they were doing and more that the former was simply better at it.

Until recently.

The article was a troubling report on what we might call “spawn of the Federalist Society.” A Senate report released by Senators Chuck Schumer, Debbie Stabenow, and Sheldon Whitehouse documents how a right-wing legal network spawned by the Federalist Society has–in Lithwick and Hasen’s words– gone “full Trumpian,” morphing from an organization of principled conservatives  into a secretly-funded cabal spouting conspiracy theories such as the myth of widespread voter fraud, and how Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the Federalist Society, has been spearheading the effort to fill the federal judiciary with judges who are likely to rule in favor of secret, monied interests.

The Senate Democrats’ report details how an interlocked group of anonymous donors have been directing the judicial nominations process through media and lobbying campaigns. Many of these campaigns, including the Judicial Crisis Network, have ties to Leo, who has twice taken a formal “leave” from the Federalist Society to advise President Trump on his Supreme Court nominations, then hopped back into his old post, while boasting that his organization was in firm control of the nominations process.

According to Lithwick and Hasen, while the Federalist Society continues to claim that it is uninvolved in politics, policy, or judicial nominations, and the group avoids taking “official” positions on such matters, Leo (who has effectively directed the group until very recently) has developed “a network of political groups, none of which disclose their donors, funded at about a quarter of a billion dollars.”  That money has mostly been used to help Mitch McConnell seat so-called “conservative” (and frequently unqualified) judges on the federal bench.

Judicial Crisis Network –one of the organizations in that shadowy network– spent $7 million opposing Merrick Garland, $10 million to support  Neil Gorsuch (targeting ‘vulnerable Democrat Senators’), and another $10 million in advertising to support Brett Kavanaugh. And nobody knows where the money came from.

More recently, that shadowy network has engaged in a new initiative: an effort to engage in political dirty tricks to help keep its cronies in power.

But the big news today is where that conservative network is heading: Their activities now go well beyond dark money political hardball into conspiracy mongering and election-meddling efforts around the November presidential elections that endanger our democracy.

And while this is happening, the Trump administration is rolling back the rules that would require these organizations to disclose their donors….

If there isn’t a blue wave in November, what is essentially a bloodless coup will have succeeded–making my son’s snark about needing a brown shirt terrifyingly true.