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Will Dark Money Rescue Brett Kavanaugh’s Confirmation?

The Judicial Crisis Network is just one of several groups working to ensure a conservative majority on the high court

The front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. It's business as usual at the Supreme Court this week, no matter that confirmation politics is on everyone's mind in WashingtonSupreme Court, Washington, USA

The front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington.

Alex Brandon/AP/REX Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — As Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings head into a final and decisive stretch, the dark-money cavalry is riding to his rescue.

The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), the anonymously funded conservative nonprofit run by a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, says it will spend $1.5 million on an ad blitz intended to shore up support for President Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee. The news comes in the days since Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist and professor in California, publicly alleged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when she was 15 and he was 17.

“This 11th-hour character assassination does not add up,” the group said in a statement. “We are not going to stand by and let Judge Kavanaugh be smeared.”

JCN released a 30-second spot featuring Louisa Garry, a friend of Kavanaugh’s for three decades. “I believe that we need to have bright, curious, open-minded, thoughtful, empathetic people who are judges, and I trust that Brett is that person,” she says in the ad.

Carrie Severino, JCN’s chief counsel and policy director, is one of Kavanaugh’s most vocal and aggressive defenders in the media. In a recent CNN appearance, Severino seemed to downplay Dr. Ford’s allegations, saying they “cover a whole range of conduct, from boorishness to rough horseplay to actual attempted rape, so obviously if you go to rape, yes, that is a really serious allegation.”

The Judicial Crisis Network has fast become one of the most aggressive dark-money groups on the political landscape when it comes to the courts. The group has already spent more than $4 million to support Kavanaugh’s confirmation, with much of that spending happening in states like Indiana and Missouri, where vulnerable Democratic senators are on the ballot. In earlier Supreme Court battles, the group said it spent $7 million to block the confirmation of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick to replace Scalia in 2016, and another $10 million to back the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first SCOTUS pick.   

The JCN’s big-money donors are a mystery. As a so-called social welfare group, it doesn’t have to disclose its funders. That means that individuals or companies that could one day appear before the Supreme Court may also be bankrolling the campaign to confirm the court’s next justice.

What we do know is that the JCN is the beneficiary of massive anonymous donations by deep-pocketed conservative groups and individuals. Tax records show that in 2016 JCN received $23.5 million from a group called the Wellspring Committee, a sort of ATM for right-wing causes that include the Federalist Society, the conservative analytics outfit Data Trust and the 45Committee, which spent heavily to support Trump’s presidential bid and is affiliated with the Ricketts family, who owns the Chicago Cubs. And Wellspring, in turn, received a jaw-dropping donation of $28 million from a single donor.

The Koch brothers’ flagship dark-money group, Americans for Prosperity, committed to spend seven figures to support Kavanaugh earlier this summer. This week, in the wake of Dr. Ford’s allegations, the group said it still supported the nominee.

Liberals have also gotten into the dark-money game in the fight for control of the judiciary. Demand Justice, launched in May, is promoting the hashtag #IBelieveChristine and released ads connecting the allegations against Kavanaugh to Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and to former Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of assaulting nine women, some of whom were under 18 at the time of the alleged incident. (Moore, for his part, said Republicans should “take a stand” and support Kavanaugh’s confirmation.)

After Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement this past summer, Demand Justice vowed to spend $5 million to block Trump’s second SCOTUS pick. More recently, it said it would spend $700,000 to push Republican senators to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination. Demand Justice has not disclosed its donors, but the New York Times reported that Brian Fallon, the group’s executive director, spoke at a meeting of the Democracy Alliance, an exclusive club of dozens of the biggest liberal donors in the country, including George Soros and Tom Steyer.

All of this anonymous spending doesn’t appear to bother the Supreme Court picks who stand to benefit from it. Kavanaugh is a staunch opponent of campaign-finance regulations. And there was a telling exchange during Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings in March 2017. At one point, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questioned Gorsuch about the onslaught of spending by the Judicial Crisis Network to block Merrick Garland and back Gorsuch.

“The dark money group that is spending money on your [nomination] spent at least $7 million against him getting a hearing and a confirmation here, and indeed produced that result by spending that money,” Whitehouse said. “And then now we have $10 million going the other way. That’s a $17 million delta. And for the life of me, I’m trying to figure out what they see in you that makes that $17 million delta worth their spending. Do you have any answer to that?”

“You’d have to ask them,” Gorsuch replied.

“I can’t,” Whitehouse said. “Because I don’t know who they are.”

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