Conservative Groups Scored Big Supreme Court Wins. Now They’re Trying to Do It Again (1)

With deep pockets and dark money connections, they’re advancing big cases on abortion and racial discrimination.

(Bloomberg) — The Alliance Defending Freedom and Pacific Legal Foundation, two right-leaning groups that won major Supreme Court victories earlier this year, are again poised to play key roles in the term that opened this week. 

Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom has won 15 Supreme Court Cases since 2011, and four since 2020, when Justice Amy Coney Barrett tilted the court into a 6-3 conservative supermajority. Founded in 1973, the Pacific Legal Foundation — a libertarian group that opposes big government — has won five cases since 2020 and boasts an overall record of 17 Supreme Court victories and two losses. 

The victories show the ADF and PLF’s mastery of the long game: Deploying their deep influence and vast financial warchests, loaded with funds from dark money groups, to advance conservative and libertarian cases through the legal system — all the way to the highest court in the country.

In the months ahead, the Supreme Court will likely hear a case in which the Alliance Defending Freedom is pushing to restrict the use of a pill used in medical abortions. And the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned the court to take up its case alleging a Virginia high school, one of the nation’s best public math and technology schools, discriminates against Asian American applicants. 

Josh Blackman, constitutional law professor at the Texas College of Law Houston who has worked with both the ADF and PLF, said both groups are “more bold now” with their cases.

All the wins have translated into big donations. The ADF received over $96 million in contributions and grants in its 2022 fiscal year, a nearly 30% increase from the previous year, according to tax filings. This year, the Pacific Legal Foundation received $21.5 million in contributions, a 14% increase on the previous year and a 40% increase since 2021, according to numbers provided by the group to Bloomberg News. Steven Anderson, the chief executive officer of PLF, said the group anticipates “record-setting fundraising again this year.”

Liberal groups like the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union have cultivated cases in order to achieve policy goals for decades. But the Supreme Court’s makeup means it’s the conservative ecosystem now pushing cases — and becoming more influential and better-funded than ever. “This is definitely the judicial audience they have needed,” said Josh Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Denver with an expertise in abortion and conservative politics.

Critics say the groups have outsized power and influence at the Supreme Court — and provide almost no insight into who is funding them. Both ADF and PLF are both funded largely by “dark money,” meaning they don’t have to disclose the identities of their donors, thanks in part to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

“The ultimate goal is to use litigation to strip Americans of their rights and undermine democracy,” Caroline Ciccone, president of liberal watchdog group Accountable.US, told Bloomberg News. And bolstering efforts is a “dark money network that makes it all possible.” 

Financial Warchests

ADF reported revenues of over $100 million for the first time in 2022, a roughly 60% increase since 2020, according to tax filings. In 2012, the group’s revenue was $38 million. The bulk of its funding is maintained by the ADF Foundation, an associated charity, which also does not have to disclose its funding sources.  

Foundations and groups associated with conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, and Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ADF and groups associated with it, according to their tax filings.

In 2022, the PLF reported over $28 million in total revenue, a roughly 70% increase from 2020. Much of its money comes from groups associated with the Kochs, the billionaire family that controls one of the largest privately owned companies in the US; the late business executive Daniel Searle; and groups associated with Leo. The Kochs have established themselves as prolific donors to conservative and libertarian causes, including a range of small-government groups like PLF.

PLF has also drawn millions of dollars from a foundation associated with the Edwards family, California philanthropists whose patriarch William Edwards helped launch the venture capital industry.  

Representatives for Leo, DeVos, Searle, and the Edwards family did not respond to request for comment.

Thanks to both groups’ sizable pool of donations, their clients don’t have to pay a dime. 

The ADF employs nearly 100 attorneys who work to advance cases from the trial level all the way up through the appellate system, according to Kristen Waggoner, its president. The group boasts a network of more than 2,600 affiliated attorneys at private law firms. 

The PLF’s headcount is about 115, close to a 100% increase since 2016. Since then, the group’s caseload has increased by more than 40%. Last year it filed 15 petitions asking the Supreme Court to take up various cases. 

Larry Sulzman, PLF’s litigation director, said the group is involved in litigation for about 120 cases right now, up from about 80 in 2016.

Sympathetic Cases

Experts agree that one of the keys to the groups’ success at the Supreme Court is their ability to humanize esoteric, often unpopular causes. 

When Colorado passed a law barring businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ people, the ADF took up the case of Lorie Smith, a conservative Christian and a graphic designer who feared the state would force her to make sites for same-sex marriages.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority sided with Smith, saying she has a free-speech right to create websites only for opposite-sex weddings. 

In public messaging and arguments before the court, ADF emphasized that she “serves clients from all walks of life.” In other words, it wasn’t about bigotry — it was about free speech.

In Idaho in 2008, the PLF represented Michael and Chantell Sackett in a case against the Environmental Protection Agency, who’d stopped the couple from building a house on their property on the grounds that it would violate the Clean Water Act. 

This year, the high court ruled in favor of the Sacketts, narrowing the scope of the Clean Water Act to exclude over 59 million acres of wetlands. 

“PLF will represent a landowner who potentially presents more sympathetic facts for the court to roll back environmental regulations than you would get if you are directly representing polluters,” Sanjay Narayan, managing attorney of the Sierra Club’s environmental law program, told Bloomberg News. “When the Clean Water Act rolls back, the primary beneficiaries are going to be big industrial polluters.”

Over half of PLF’s cases come from private attorney referrals. This year, the group built its prominent cases around relatable plaintiffs whose causes aligned with the PLF’s anti-regulatory posture.  This year, PLF represented Larry “Wil” Wilkins, a military veteran with PTSD whose cat was killed by a trespasser

“We are looking to establish precedents that affect a lot of folks,” Sulzman said. 

A Broader Movement

Following in ADF and PLF’s footsteps is the Cause of Action Institute, the main driver behind an upcoming Supreme Court case that could overturn the precedent that allows federal agencies broad leeway to interpret ambiguous statutes on issues like corporate power and environmental regulations. 

The group is closely connected to the Kochs: In 2021, Cause of Action reported receiving $375,000 in donations. The Stand Together Trust — a Koch foundation — gave the group $375,000 that year. And the group’s executive director is a former director of Koch group Americans for Prosperity. A spokesperson for the Koch Foundation confirmed the donation.  

Conservatives say they’re looking to those groups to help shepherd in a new legal movement on the right, a sentiment echoed by Blackman, the law professor.

“It’s our turn now,” he said.

(The Koch Foundation’s confirmation of the donation to Stand Together Trust has been added. The spelling of Caroline Ciccone’s name has been corrected.)

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