Trump’s judicial guru helped Gov. DeSantis pick conservative Florida Supreme Court justices

Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court. Shutterstock.com

President Trump’s judicial adviser, Leonard Leo, also guided Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his appointments of three conservative jurists to the Florida Supreme Court, the governor said Thursday during an appearance at the Federalist Society’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.

DeSantis was the opening speaker during the gathering of prominent conservative judges, scholars and politicians with scheduled appearances by U.S. Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

Federalist Society logo. Wikipedia.

The Florida governor was introduced by Federalist Society co-chairman Leo, who has been a central figure in the Trump administration’s efforts to reshape the federal courts. He assisted with the selection and confirmation of each of Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court picks.

Leo was also among those who advised DeSantis ahead of the governor’s Florida Supreme Court appointments early in his term, DeSantis said. “I had a group of people that I trusted; Leonard was one of them.”

The Florida Phoenix wrote earlier about the Federalist Society, saying the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization has changed the judicial landscape nationwide with its conservative and libertarian principles and a cadre of members who have helped advance a broad conservative agenda.

Federalist Society member lawyers have been involved in numerous legal challenges that stem from the group’s views, according to attorneys Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, who in 2013 published The Federalist Society: How Conservatives took the Law Back from Liberals.

The authors wrote that Federalist Society lawyers in government and in conservative public interest firms have moved to  “challenge government regulation of the economy; roll back affirmative action; invalidate laws providing access to the courts by aggrieved workers, consumers, and environmentalists; expand state support for religious institutions and programs; oppose marriage equality; increase statutory impediments to women’s ability to obtain an abortion; defend state’s rights; increase presidential power; and otherwise advance a broad conservative agenda.”

Leo lauded DeSantis on Thursday for placing “great emphasis on originalism” as he selected justices for the Supreme Court, referring to the legal concept embraced by some conservatives that the Constitution should be viewed in the context in which it was originally written. Critics of originalism often favor more flexible interpretations of the Constitution.

DeSantis is “someone who has long been an adherent of the originalist enterprise going all the way back to his days as an active member of the Harvard Law School Federalist Society,” Leo said. “Today, he’s putting originalism in action.”

Just after taking office in January, DeSantis reshaped the state’s Supreme Court by appointing three new conservative justices: Robert Luck, Barbara Lagoa, and Carlos Muñiz. Three previous justices were forced to retire due to age limits. Muñiz and Lagoa are Federalist Society members, as are other judges DeSantis has placed on the bench.

The extent of Leo’s direct involvement in DeSantis’ appointments hadn’t been widely publicized, although Facing South, published by the Institute for Southern Studies reported on the connection last month.

DeSantis kept his decisions close to the vest at the time, he said Thursday. “I knew it would leak,” he said. “We were just coming off the Kavanaugh thing,” he added, referring to the Supreme Court justice’s contentious confirmation hearing. “I didn’t want them to be piñatas and just get attacked or whatever.”

The Florida governor is likely to soon appoint two new justices to the court. Trump nominated Luck and Lagoa to serve on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a powerful court with jurisdiction over Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Both nominees have been approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and are awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.

“He’ll soon be at it again because President Trump quickly stole his two appointments to the Florida Supreme Court,” Leo said Thursday.

Estimating that his next two appointments would come in February, DeSantis said, “I will have made five appointments in 13 months. And to put that in perspective, two of my predecessors, [former Florida Govs.] Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, served a combined 16 years and they made a combined three appointments in 16 years.”

Phoenix editor-in-chief Diane Rado contributed to this report.