Man Who Helped Overturn Roe Comes to Wisconsin Supreme Court Race, Which Will Decide Abortion Rights

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2016 file photo, Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo speaks to media at Trump Tower in New York. Leo is advising President Donald Trump on his Supreme Court nominee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

By Keya Vakil

March 6, 2023

Leonard Leo was Donald Trump’s “judge whisperer,” ensuring the former president appointed judges to the court who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Now, Leo is turning his attention to Wisconsin, where control of the state Supreme Court—and the future of abortion rights in the state—are on the line on April 4. 

You probably don’t know the name Leonard Leo, but if you live in Wisconsin and you care about reproductive freedom, voting rights, workers’ rights, or a host of other issues that can affect your daily life, you should.

There’s arguably no one more responsible for the repeal of Roe v. Wade than Leo, a Virginia-based attorney and the longtime executive vice president of The Federalist Society, the ultra-conservative legal organization that helped engineer the right-wing takeover of the US Supreme Court. 

The Federalist Society counts all six Republican Supreme Court judges as current or former members. Leo, an extreme, anti-abortion conservative served as Donald Trump’s “judge whisperer,” ensuring the former president appointed judges to the court who would advance conservative priorities, including stripping the constitutional right to abortion from tens of millions of Americans.

Now, Leo is turning his attention to Wisconsin, where control of the state Supreme Court is up for grabs on April 4.

In February, Leo donated $20,000, the maximum amount allowable by law, to right-wing candidate Dan Kelly, who previously served as the president of the Milwaukee Lawyer’s Chapter of the Federalist Society

Leo exited his full-time role at the society in 2020 and now runs a network of shady, “dark money” groups that are funded by anonymous wealthy donors. These groups—which have helped make Leo extraordinarily wealthy—have spent more than $500 million as they seek to overhaul every aspect of American society, from abortion to education to business, in order to make them radically conservative. 

One of Leo’s groups, the Judicial Crisis Network, has also funneled millions of dollars to Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an extreme anti-abortion group that is spending six figures to promote Kelly’s campaign through its Women Speak Out political action committee. 

Kelly, a former state Supreme Court judge who lost his race in 2020, will take on liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz in a race to determine whether Republicans retain their 4-3 edge on the Court, or Democrats flip control. 

The stakes of the race are sky-high, as the Court is expected to decide whether Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban is legal. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit last summer, asking the Dane County Circuit Court to overturn the ban and instead rule that a 1985 state law that bans abortions after a fetus becomes viable outside the womb—usually around 24 weeks—supersedes the pre-Civil War era ban. 

The Dane County court has yet to issue a ruling and the 1849 ban, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest, is currently in place, meaning Wisconsin women must travel out-of-state to legally obtain abortion care. Under the extreme law, doctors who perform abortions can be charged with felonies and face up to six years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

The lawsuit is expected to reach the state Supreme Court, where either Protasiewicz or Kelly would almost certainly provide the deciding vote. 

Protasiewicz has campaigned as a supporter of abortion rights, but has not said how she would rule on any particular case. “I believe in a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion,” Protasiewicz said in a recent TV ad.

In contrast, Kelly has been vocal about his opposition to abortion rights. 

In a blog post published in 2012, Kelly described abortion as “a policy that has as its primary purpose harming children” and accused pro-choice advocacy groups and Democrats of “normalizing the practice of abortion, making it culturally acceptable” in order to “preserve sexual libertinism.”

Kelly has also been endorsed by the state’s top three anti-abortion rights groups, Wisconsin Family Action, Pro-Life Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Right to Life, and has previously provided legal advice to Wisconsin Right to Life. These groups explicitly state that they only support and endorse candidates who oppose abortion rights.

“Dan Kelly was on record before the Dobbs decision, suggesting that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. He’s also accepted the endorsement of groups seeking to end all abortions,” Protasiewicz told UpNorthNews in a radio interview last month. “I can tell you that I am 100% certain that that ban will stay in place if… [Kelly] prevails in April.

The upcoming race is not the first time Leo has gotten involved in a Wisconsin state Supreme Court race. In 2019, Leo’s groups funded last-minute ads to help Brian Hagedorn defeat Lisa Neubauer by less than 1%. 

It’s not just Wisconsin, either. According to a Grid News investigation, the network of groups connected to Leo has spent at least $31 million on races for State Supreme court seats, or other high-level state judgeships, in 15 states since 2010. In Florida, Leo has advised Gov. Ron DeSantis on state-level judicial appointments, helping the presidential hopeful appoint far-right judges.

Leo’s not the only influential right-wing donor bankrolling Kelly. Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks and her daughter have each also donated $20,000 to his campaign, and so too have the billionaire Republican donors Dick and Liz Uihlein. The Uihleins and Hendricks are widely credited with helping an unpopular Sen. Ron Johnson narrowly win re-election by airing millions of dollars in racist and misleading ads targeting former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

Dick Uihlein also directed $1.5 million in funding to a pro-Kelly outside group, Fair Courts America, in January, on top of more than $3 million in contributions to the organization last year. Uihlein is also the biggest funder behind Women Speak Out, the arm of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America that is backing Kelly’s campaign and counts Leo among its benefactors. 

While Uihlein continues to pour money into the race, Leo is in a category of his own when it comes to elevating right-wing judges and getting them on the bench, where they get to cast hugely important votes on the issues that matter most to Americans. 

It took decades, but Leo’s quest to remake the Supreme Court in a radically right-wing image paid off. Roe is a thing of the past and Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban is a thing of the present. Leo and fellow right-wing donors are spending lavishly to ensure that remains the case—to ensure that Wisconsin women cannot obtain abortion care, even in cases of rape or incest. 

When Wisconsin voters will cast their ballots for either Kelly or Protasiewicz on April 4, they’ll be voting for Leo’s vision of America or against it. They just may not know it. 


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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