At Barrett Supreme Court Hearings, Sheldon Whitehouse Broke Down How “Dark Money” Shapes the Judiciary


Armed with a deck of cardstock, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) used his time during day two of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings to deliver a presentation on conservative “dark money” plans to pad the court with conservative representation.

Citing the Washington Post, Whitehouse discussed “The Scheme,” his shorthand for how an influential nonprofit conservative and libertarian lawyer group and its leaders are using money and political persuasion to reshape the United States judiciary.

During his almost 10-minute presentation, Whitehouse said rulings on a woman’s right to choose, access to affordable health care and same-sex marriage could all risk being overturned thanks to a shady network of major right-wing players shaping the federal judiciary.

Exploring how several of his GOP colleagues had changed their tune on election-year Supreme Court nominees, Whitehouse said, “My experience around politics is that when you find hypocrisy in the daylight, look for power in the shadows.”

According to a 2019 Washington Post article, between 2014 and 2017, conservative nonprofits raised more than $250 million in donations that was used partly to support conservative policies and judges. Because of the nonprofit status, under IRS regulations the donors did not have to be publicly disclosed, leading to the widely used nickname of “dark money.”

“I’ve never seen this around any court that I’ve ever been involved with where there’s this much dark money and this much influence being used,” Whitehouse said. “$250 million is a lot of money to spend if you’re not getting anything for it. So that raises the question, what are they getting for it?”

As he continued with his presentation, Whitehouse turned to a flow-chart slide with names circled and connected by red marker. The slide highlighted how key figures are tied to the Supreme Court selection process. Whitehouse discussed how Federalist Society board co-chair Leonard Leo, Judicial Crisis Network president Carrie Severino, and other conservative forces are using their influence to maintain elite judicial power.

Last month following Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Mother Jones reported that the Judicial Crisis Network announced it would spend “at least $2.2 million” in advertisements to boost whoever Trump selected to fill Ginsburg’s vacant seat. The group also played a key role in boosting Trump’s previous and successful Supreme court appointments, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The group spent “tens of millions” to support those nominations, Mother Jones reported

Whitehouse said goals that could be furthered by the confirmation of Coney Barrett include regulatory environmental protection rollbacks that would reward polluters, voting suppression that particularly targets minority voters, and unlimited dark money in politics. He called the intentions “biased” and “partisan.”

“With the same funders selecting judges, funding campaigns for the judges, and then showing up in court in these orchestrated amicus flotillas to tell the judges what to do,” he said. “Something is not right around the Court. And dark money has a lot to do with it. Special interests have a lot to do with it.”

Whitehouse, who has served as a Rhode Island senator since 2007, used to work as a U.S. attorney.

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