Northport, New York, U.S.
|Education||Cornell University (BA, JD)|
|Employer||CRC Advisors; The BH Group|
|This article is part of a series on|
the United States
Early life and education
Leo was born on Long Island, New York in 1965, and raised in suburban New Jersey to a family of practicing Catholics. His grandfather, an Italian immigrant, was a vice-president of Brooks Brothers. He attended Cornell University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1986, and working as an intern in the office of Senator Orrin Hatch. Leo completed a J.D. degree at Cornell Law School in 1989, then clerked for federal judge A. Raymond Randolph of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Judicial nomination work
While studying law at Cornell, Leo founded a student chapter of the Federalist Society in 1989, and subsequently went to work for the Society in 1991 in Washington, D.C. He met Clarence Thomas while clerking in the Appeals Court and the two became close friends. Leo delayed his start at the Federalist Society to assist Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Leo served at the Federalist Society in a variety of capacities for over 25 years. In 2019, The Washington Post reported that the Federalist Society had paid Leo an annual wage of more than $400,000 for a number of years.
Leo took leave of absences from the Federalist Society to organize efforts in support of the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. Leo helped to push the Bush administration's nomination of Miguel Estrada to the judiciary.
In 2003, when George W. Bush intended to criticize the practice of affirmative action in a speech but praise racial diversity, Leo called White House officials to complain. Leo said that the praise for racial diversity would "disgust any conservative who thinks that this is a matter of principle." Leo told the Washington Post, he "was conveying the widely shared belief among conservatives that discriminating on the basis of race is always wrong and inconsistent with the dignity and worth of every person."
In 2016, after the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Leo helped arrange funding to rename George Mason University's Law School the Antonin Scalia Law School. Leo was also identified by 2017 Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch as the person who first contacted Gorsuch about the possibility of President Donald Trump appointing Gorsuch to the seat vacated by Scalia's death.
Leo was heavily involved in the campaign to prevent Merrick Garland from filling the Supreme Court seat previously occupied by Antonin Scalia; the Judicial Crisis Network, linked to Leo, reported that it spent more than $7 million to prevent Garland's confirmation. Leo was connected to two dozen conservative nonprofit entities that raised over $250 million between 2014 and 2017. Donors who contributed to this network included Charles Koch and Rebekah Mercer.
In 2017, Kris Mauren of the Acton Institute said that Leo has played "a significant leadership role in the selection and successful confirmation of a third of the currently sitting justices on the Supreme Court."
In 2019, The Washington Post wrote of Leo, "few people outside government have more influence over judicial appointments now than Leo." Leo described himself in 2019 as "a leader of the conservative legal movement." Leo has said of Mitch McConnell, who has broken records in seating Republican judicial nominees, that he was "the most consequential majority leader, certainly, in modern history."
In January 2020, Leo announced that he would be leaving his position as vice president at the Federalist Society to start a new group, CRC Advisors. CRC Advisors is a conservative public affairs consulting firm modeled off of the liberal advisory group Arabella Advisors. CRC Advisors has lobbied against climate change mitigation policies. Leo remained in his role as co-chairman of the Federalist Society's board of directors.
On October 12, 2018, Leo appeared on an episode of Firing Line. When asked about a possible vacancy on the Supreme Court in a future election year, he replied by saying: "If a vacancy occurs in 2020, the vacancy needs to remain open until a president is elected and inaugurated and can pick. That's my position, period." Leo said he would advise President Trump not to act on an election year Supreme Court vacancy, saying he had never asked President Trump about the possible scenario, but that it was Leo's opinion that President Trump should not act on a 2020 Supreme Court vacancy, should it arise.
After the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, Leo said the impending Supreme Court nomination fight "can be an important galvanizing force for President Trump." In September 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that Leo was involved in the selection process for a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; this ultimately resulted in the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett.
Leo served as National Co-Chairman of Catholic Outreach for the Republican National Committee, and as the 2004 Bush presidential campaign's Catholic strategist. He was appointed by President George W. Bush and the United States Senate to three terms on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In 2012, Leo was on the boards of the Catholic Association and its affiliate Catholic Association Foundation. These two organizations ran campaigns opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2016, Leo received $120,000 for his work for the Catholic Association.
While Leo was the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a Muslim policy analyst filed a complaint against the group with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that she had been the victim of anti-Muslim discrimination. Leo denied the claims of discrimination against the organization and no specific claims were made regarding Leo. The EEOC complaint was dismissed.
Other appointments and work
He has been a U.S. Delegate to the UN Council and UN Commission on Human Rights as well as the Organization of Security and Cooperation and World Health Assembly. Leo has served as an observer at the World Intellectual Property Organization and as a member of the U.S. National Commission to UNESCO.
Leo has served on the Board of Directors of various organizations such as Reclaim New York, a charity with ties to conservative activists Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon; Liberty Central, a charity founded by Virginia Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas; the Catholic Association and an affiliated charity, the Catholic Association Foundation; The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast; the Becket Law Fund; Students for Life; the Napa Legal Institute; the Youth Leadership Foundation; and the Board of Visitors at The Busch School of Business at Catholic University.
Leo is a member of the Council for National Policy, whose other members include, among others, Virginia Thomas, the wife of Clarence Thomas; Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center; and Ralph Reed, chairman of the nonprofit Faith & Freedom Coalition.
In filings with the Federal Election Commission, Leo listed the BH Group as his employer. In 2018, the Judicial Crisis Network reported paying BH Group $1.2 million in fees. In its first two years of existence, the BH Group received more than $4 million from the Judicial Crisis Network, its sister entity, the Judicial Education Project and a third nonprofit, the Wellspring Committee. Leo is also the President of the Freedom and Opportunity Fund.
Leo is the sole trustee of, and only individual associated with, the Rule of Law Trust. Its stated mission is "to advance conservative principles and causes." It reported revenue of more than $80 million in 2018.
Leo is closely connected with the Honest Elections Project. The Honest Elections Project, which has referred to voter suppression as a "myth", has filed briefs in favor of voting restrictions in Nevada, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Leo is Roman Catholic. He has seven children with his wife, Sally. Their daughter Margaret died in 2007 at the age of 14 from spina bifida. Leo has spoken about the profound impact her life had on him. Leo is a member of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic lay organization.
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