Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court retirement throws the spotlight on one of the most influential players in Washington, D.C., when it comes to deciding what individuals inhabit the centers of power.
We are talking about Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and the go-to guy for names of federal court appointees when Republicans rule the White House.
Alongside Leo, journalists should also be taking a close look at another Republican networker and talent-spotter, Kay Coles James, as of January the president of the Heritage Foundation. Both are devout Christians, a fact the media have reported. But few reporters have explored that aspect of their life stories in any depth, allowing good prospects for fresh, religiously themed features or interviews.
The Federalist Society, where Leo has worked since 1991, boasts a constituency of some 65,000 conservative attorneys, jurists, and law school students. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who provided the pivotal vote in three important 5-4 Supreme Court rulings this week, was on the lists from which candidate Donald Trump promised to choose his Supreme Court nominees in an unprecedented campaign gambit.
Trump’s prime resource in choosing those names was Leo, as recounted in a New Yorker profile by Jeffrey Toobin last year. Toobin says Leo “has met and cultivated almost every important Republican lawyer” of this generation. In addition to Gorsuch, he was the man behind the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Leo was the chief Catholic strategist for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 and co-chaired Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee. (The Religion Guy covered for The AP his briefing of Catholic delegates attending the party’s New York City convention.) Despite that partisan affiliation, President Barack Obama along with leaders of both parties in Congress appointed him to chair the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Leo tries to attend daily Mass when possible and his “faith is central to all he does,” says Conor Gallagher of the Benedict Leadership Institute. Leo was a founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast and is a member of the international Order of Malta. According to Toobin, Leo became especially devoted to his church and to its pro-life belief as the parent of daughter Margaret, who died of spina bifida complications at age 14.
With so many unfilled posts, and rapid staff turnover, the appointments roundelay under President Trump is an ongoing story theme that brings us to Kay Coles James, whose well-funded think tank can boast of 500,000 donors. Heritage has helped place “hundreds” of Trump administration appointees, according to Jonathan Mahler’s cover story on the organization in the June 24 New York Times Magazine. (The article notes Heritage has also proposed judicial candidates, without mentioning Leo’s importance.)
One example is Roger Severino, a former Becket Fund for Religious Liberty attorney who then led Heritage’s religion center. He’s now director of the civil rights office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The several state and federal posts held by Kay James include director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management under President George W. Bush. She led work on White House personnel management with the Trump transition team and had hoped for an appointment herself, but says she was blocked by fellow African-American Omarosa Manigault, a contestant on the Trump TV series later ousted from the White House staff.
The Rev. Russell Moore, social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, respects James “both for her intellect and for her commitment to Christ.” She was the dean of the school of government at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in the years when it achieved regional accreditation, and has been the senior vice president of the Family Research Council as well as a national board member of Focus on the Family, the Salvation Army and Young Life.
James has an inspiring personal story, saying she was raised by “a welfare mom” with “a dad who was absent.” At age 12 she was among pioneer students who integrated Richmond’s public schools.
Looking back on those frightening days, she says “I think God used that in shaping me” to be bold and independent. Coverage to date has been opaque on Christian influences during her youth and her church influences, affiliations and involvements during adulthood.