Conservative donors poured tens of millions of dollars of anonymous “dark money” into groups supporting Republican lawmakers in a supreme court case that could upend American election law.
The donors backed several groups that have filed supreme court amicus briefs in support of North Carolina legislators in Moore v Harper, according to a recent analysis. They are pushing for a ruling that would take ultimate decisions about voting rights and congressional gerrymandering away from state courts and hand those powers to state legislatures, of which Republicans now control the majority.
Eight conservative groups that submitted amicus briefs in the supreme court case have received close to $90m from dark money donors since 2016, according to Accountable.US, a liberal leaning watchdog group that tracks government corruption.
Several of these conservative bastions are also champions of restrictive voting laws.
Conservatives want the supreme court to adopt the independent state legislature theory, a once fringe idea now promoted by a coterie of conservative groups that filed amicus briefs, including the Honest Elections Project, the Claremont Institute, and the Public Interest Legal Foundation. The groups boast strong ties to rightwing lawyers Leonard Leo, John Eastman and Cleta Mitchell respectively. Eastman and Mitchell were allies in Donald Trump’s baseless crusade to overturn the 2020 election.
Sparked by a North Carolina gerrymandering fight, Moore v Harper has attracted strong opposition from many liberal and some conservative legal experts, who call it a partisan attack on voting rights by prominent conservative groups. Opponents of the case say they’re using a discredited legal theory to boost GOP political fortunes in coming elections.
The leading dark money financier of the conservative groups that filed amicus briefs was DonorsTrust, which contributed a whopping $70.5m, Accountable data shows.
Other top dark money donors to groups that filed amicus briefs include the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and America First Works, which, respectively, gave $6.1m and $4.8m to outfits that supported the independent state legislature theory. The long time conservative Bradley Foundation boasts Mitchell on its board, while the non-profit America First Works has been allied with Trump since its founding in 2016 under another name.
The dark money routed to some of these groups took circuitous routes. For instance, America First Works gave $4.8m to DonorsTrust that was earmarked for the Honest Elections Project, according to Accountable.
The Honest Elections Project, which has been a leading advocate for tougher voting laws in recent years, was founded by Leo, a legendary fundraiser, lawyer and co-chairman of the powerful Federalist Society. Leo was instrumental in advising Trump on his three conservative supreme court nominees.
DonorsTrust, known as the ATM of the right, has been very generous with other projects Leo has helped spearhead. In 2021, for example, Leo’s 85 Fund – a dark money conduit for conservative legal campaigns and other priorities – received its largest single grant of $17.1m from DonorsTrust, which doled out close to $190m that year.
Critics of the right’s drive to push the independent state legislature theory note the strong influence of well-financed conservative groups along with several like-minded justices.
“The ISLT [independent state legislature theory] has been fueled by several conservative justices’ dissents, and other statements, coupled with amicus briefs and public arguments supporting the theory from think tanks, litigation shops, and partisan political organizations,” Thomas Wolf, the deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Guardian.
Two key Democrats in Congress, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Hank Johnson, submitted an amicus brief arguing forcefully against the independent state legislature theory, highlighting the role of conservative groups funded by dark money who have supported voter suppression efforts.
“Many of the petitioners’ amici actually attempted to undermine the 2020 election by relying on this theory,” Whitehouse and Johnson wrote. “Other amici share connections with groups and individuals who played a role in those attempts. Still others are presently engaged in voter-suppression and election-subversion efforts.