The Untold Story of the Network That Took Down Roe v. Wade

It happened almost by accident, over cocktails. Exactly the kind of accident that Leonard Leo intended to happen at his Federalist Society’s annual conference — a three-day gathering of the conservative tribe and a strategy session for right-wing lawyers, officials and judges that drew both big names and those who had lower profiles but were no less ambitious.

Nine days after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, the halls of the Mayflower Hotel, just blocks from the White House, were adorned with twinkling Christmas lights and abuzz with the possibilities of a future that had changed overnight. Hillary Clinton, the woman the anti-abortion movement feared more than perhaps anyone, had failed to win the presidency. And Leo and the conservative legal movement that he worked for years to create were about to reclaim power. With that power would come the chance to do what seemed unthinkable until this moment: strategize to take down Roe v. Wade.

For more than 40 years, a passionate band of conservative and mostly Christian activists tried to find ways to undermine the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion and revolutionized America. But they had been losing. The country appeared to be moving away from them, increasingly secular and increasingly liberal on sexual matters. The anti-abortion movement lacked the critical mass needed in Washington and the control of courts to end federal abortion rights. But now, with Trump, who promised to name “pro-life judges,” in the White House, there was a new vista before them.

Leo, the force behind this network, arrived at the Mayflower after spending the day at Trump Tower in New York. He met with the president-elect and his top aides about turning the list of Supreme Court justice candidates that Leo curated into legal reality. Republicans in the Senate had taken a risk by refusing to hold hearings to fill the seat left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. Now, with Trump positioned to nominate one of its own, Leo’s movement stood on the verge of an enormous triumph, with a court that would once again be dominated by Republican-appointed justices — and those who were firmly on the side of restricting abortion. Trump confirmed in the meeting that if someone was not on the list, that person would not be considered.

The conservative activist Leonard Leo maneuvered behind the scenes for decades to transform the federal judiciary and pave the way for the fall of Roe v. Wade.Credit…Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post, via Getty Images

At the Mayflower, those on the list were not just names on paper. At least nine judges of Trump’s 21 possible Supreme Court nominees at the time were scheduled to speak, and most of the other hopefuls attended at various points. So did some of those who already held seats on the highest court. Leo opened the conference by introducing his friend Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the ballroom, overflowing four deep in the balcony. The mood was both exuberant and serious as the new power brokers considered the opportunities ahead.

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