Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court was made possible in part by the Judicial Crisis Network, which spent $17 million lobbying to keep Merrick Garland off the bench—and to get Gorsuch on it. Where did all that money come from? We don’t know, because it was almost entirely dark money, funneled through a Koch-allied conduit that keeps its donors secret. But the JCN isn’t entirely anonymous: It has a public face in Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director. Severino essentially served as Gorsuch’s lobbyist, throwing money around to ensure his confirmation. Like many lobbyists, she enjoys the access to power that her job affords her. Indeed, Severino attended Gorsuch’s swearing-in ceremony at the White House Rose Garden on Monday morning.
Severino’s presence at Monday’s ceremony serves as a startling reminder that Gorsuch’s path to the Supreme Court was facilitated by dark money. The JCN is kept afloat by one donor, the Wellspring Committee, which is in turn funded primarily by one single anonymous donor. Wellspring is little more than a dark-money conduit—but as a “social welfare” 501(c)(4) group, it is not required to disclose its donors. Ann Corkery, a Koch-affiliated conservative fundraiser, runs Wellspring; her husband, Neil Corkery, serves as JCN’s treasurer. For years, Wellspring has poured money into JCN, which spends the cash promoting conservatives in both state Supreme Court elections and federal confirmation battles.
The JCN became quite adept at buying state Supreme Court seats, mastering the art of the eleventh-hour smear campaign. But blocking President Barack Obama nominee Merrick Garland—and helping Gorsuch seize the seat instead—was its boldest gambit yet. The JCN began peddling offensive falsehoods about Obama’s shortlisters before the president even settled on Garland. Severino herself then contributed to the mendacious assault on Garland’s reputation, aided by National Review, which happily published her paid opinions. Meanwhile, the JCN ran ads attacking senators who were willing to hold hearings for Garland. It ran up a tab of around $7 million. Most of that money came from Wellspring.
As soon as President Donald Trump nominated Gorsuch, however, the message flipped. Suddenly, the JCN began airing cheerful ads describing Gorsuch as an independent, impartial judge who deserved hasty confirmation. One ad featured former Gorsuch clerk Jane Nitze praising her old boss. In it, she assured “folks on the left” that Gorsuch would be impartial. The ad strongly implied that Nitze is a Democrat; she is, in fact, a Republican who happened to work as a career attorney at the Justice Department during Obama’s tenure. (Naturally National Review partook in the ruse.) But why should Nitze care about this misrepresentation? Thanks partly to her help, Gorsuch is now a Supreme Court justice—and she will serve as one of his first clerks.
When Democratic senators demanded to know who was bankrolling the JCN’s campaign, the group refused to answer and slammed the senators as “glorified thugs.” The group is devoted to secrecy and to ideological purity: Before the election, it ran ads criticizing Chief Justice John Roberts as a “bad GOP appointment” because he did not invalidate the Affordable Care Act. Gorsuch is surely aware that the JCN played a vital role in elevating him to the bench, even if he does not yet know who funded its efforts. He will now face constant pressure to ensure that the organization receives a return on its investment. Will Gorsuch be responsive to the demands of his generous benefactors? It’s too soon to tell—but easy to guess. As Severino’s Rose Garden picture demonstrates, she already has ample access to Gorsuch and his inner circle. Influence cannot be far behind.