Conservative organization using claims of 'secret list' of liberal judges to rally Republican base

·Senior White House Correspondent
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative organization instrumental in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, is now calling on 2020 Democratic candidates to release what it says is a secret list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court.

The “secret list” claim is part of a $1.1 million two-week television ad campaign, according to Fox News, a significant investment this early in the presidential campaign, and a signal that conservative groups hope to use court appointments as a way to energize the Republican base ahead of the general election.

The ad also played on NBC during Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, which according to CNN was the most-watched Democratic primary debate in the history of televised debates.

There’s just one problem, according to the group that allegedly created the list: It doesn’t exist.

Laurie Kinney, communications director for Alliance for Justice, a liberal judicial advocacy group, says her organization is identifying potential judicial nominees for a future Democratic administration but is "definitely not asking candidates to commit to any ‘lists.’"

She told Yahoo News that the organization is consulting with an advisory council and lawyers' groups around the country, trying to sound out progressives about promising lawyers who could be stars on the federal bench in a Democratic administration. She said the effort was in its early stages.

Representatives for Democratic candidates expressed confusion regarding the existence of such a list.

Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network. (Photo: Judicial Crisis Network)
Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network. (Photo: Judicial Crisis Network)

Ian Sams, communications director for the presidential campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, said he had “no idea” about such a list having been presented to the campaign. He added that he was “highly doubtful” the Harris campaign was in possession of such a list.

The campaign of Sen. Cory Booker also did not know about any such list.

“First I’m hearing of it,” said Matt Corridoni, communications director for Rep. Seth Moulton.

Lis Smith, senior adviser to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, had a similar reaction when asked whether his campaign was in possession of a nominee list. “No idea,” she said.

The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden did not respond to requests for comment.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, maintained in an email exchange with Yahoo News that the secret list did exist, citing a New York Times report that described the Alliance for Justice effort to identify and mentor progressive jurists. The article did not say that the list was being given to presidential campaigns, or that it explicitly contained Supreme Court recommendations.

Severino maintained that though a list did exist, she could provide few details beyond its purported existence.

“It’s a secret list,” she told Yahoo News. “I have not seen it.”

Alliance for Justice said Severino has not seen the list because there is no list. “This is not the infamous Trump ‘list,’” Alliance for Justice founder Nan Aron said of her organization’s effort. “[The initiative] Building the Bench is about making the next administration and senators aware of the broad pool of legal talent that should be considered for appointments to the federal bench. Unlike the judges President Trump is nominating, these will be individuals who respect the Constitution and important legal protections for all Americans.”

Neil Gorsuch, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, left, and Brett Kavanaugh, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, attend the U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Feb. 5, 2019. (Photo: Doug Mills/Pool via Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh at the State of the Union address on Feb. 5. (Photo: Doug Mills/Pool via Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The Judicial Crisis Network, funded in part by secretive conservative interests, has been instrumental in advocating for Trump’s remaking of the judiciary, which has included two Supreme Court justices — Kavanaugh and, before him, Neil Gorsuch — and also dozens of conservative judges at the appellate and district levels. The group’s public face is Severino, a media-savvy activist with a law degree from Harvard who is a regular presence on Fox News.

Appearing on “Fox & Friends” — one of the president’s favorite television programs — on Tuesday morning, Severino previewed an ad calling for Democratic candidates to release the list.

The ad begins by replaying scenes from the contentious Kavanaugh fight, which was marked by accusations of sexual assault against him. “The radical left smeared Judge Kavanaugh,” the ad says. “Now the same radicals want to pack the court,” the narrator says a little later. “They’ve built a secret list of judges they won’t show anyone.”

“What are they hiding?” the ad asks before calling on Biden specifically to release the list of secret judges. The ad shows several other 2020 candidates, including Harris and Booker.

The ad does not say who the potential judicial nominees on the list are. Running about 30 seconds in length, the commercial appears to be an attempt to alert supporters of Trump, who officially launched his reelection campaign last week, to the supposed dangers of a Democratic president.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh (L) shakes hands with President Donald Trump during Kavanaugh's ceremonial swearing in in the East Room of the White House October 08, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was confirmed in the Senate 50-48 after a contentious process that included several women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Trump during Kavanaugh's swearing-in, Oct. 8, 2018. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Some recent polls — the veracity of which the president has called into question — have shown Trump losing support in states he will need to win in the general election. The prospect of a liberal judiciary could motivate conservatives; the issue proved salient in 2016, in particular after Trump released his Federalist Society-endorsed list of conservatives he would appoint to the federal bench.

After the ad ran, “Fox & Friends” co-host Jedediah Bila mused to Severino that the “fear is that those independent voters, or those voters on the fence, might be completely turned off when they recognize what a far-left Supreme Court justice nominee looks like.”

Although the ad does not name Alliance for Justice, it does refer to a New York Times article, titled “Liberals Begin Lining Up Young Judges for a Post-Trump Surge,” published on June 8. The article concerns Building the Bench, the initiative recently started by Alliance for Justice. “Liberal judicial activists have begun a new effort to recommend possible successors who could immediately be funneled into the judicial pipeline,” the article says. The only judicial organization discussed by the New York Times article is Alliance for Justice.

The article makes no mention of a “secret list,” but does say that Alliance for Justice and its affiliates “do not intend to make their recommendations public — they see them more as a guide for a potential Democratic administration.”

That sentence appears to be Severino’s basis for alleging that a secret list of judges exists and has been disseminated to Democratic presidential campaigns. “Shocking @nytimes story reveals left wing dark money groups working with Democrat pres candidates,” Severino wrote on Twitter after the article was published, “on a secret list of nominees for SCOTUS.”

“Who are these extremists,” a later tweet from Severino asked, “they don't want us to see?”


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