When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appeared for the first time before the Florida Federalist Society in January 2020, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared to a large banquet audience on the Disney World grounds: “I do think he is our greatest living justice.”
Later that night, DeSantis and Thomas retreated to a private dinner at a steakhouse also at Disney with a few Federalist Society stalwarts, including Leonard Leo, a wealthy conservative activist who has influenced Supreme Court appointments more than anyone outside the White House and Senate.
Thomas and Leo had been friends for decades, and Leo had known DeSantis since the governor was at Harvard Law School in the early 2000s. After his 2018 gubernatorial election in Florida, Leo began advising him on state judicial appointments, just as he did for President Donald Trump’s US Supreme Court nominees.
The private dinner helped seal the relationship between DeSantis and Thomas. “That encounter deepened their knowledge of each other and the governor’s respect for the justice,” Leo told CNN.
Ginni Thomas, the justice’s wife and a lifelong conservative activist, seemed to confirm her husband’s close ties to DeSantis in emails obtained last year by American Oversight and published by Politico.
Emails written in 2021 revealed her efforts to win DeSantis’ participation in a meeting of a right-wing coalition with which she was working. As she communicated with the governor’s scheduling team, she said she had interviewed DeSantis for the Daily Caller when he was in the House of Representatives, that she had seen him at a state dinner at the Trump White House and – crucially – that “my husband has been in contact with him too on various things of late.”
Like Trump during his first campaign in 2016, DeSantis has put the Supreme Court at the center of his appeal to Republicans. He has predicted he could, if elected, secure a 7-2 conservative-liberal majority (the bench is now dominated 6-3 by conservatives). An emphasis on the future makeup of the court and the potential for his eight years in the White House, rather than only four more years for Trump, could help the Florida governor seize a key lane from his rival.
Irrespective of the squabbling between the two presidential contenders, DeSantis and Trump have operated in the same ideological orbit. Some of DeSantis’ state court appointees became Trump federal court appointees, and their entire approach to the bench is fueled by Federalist Society figures like Leo.
ProPublica’s recent reports of Thomas’ undisclosed travel and other financial entanglements with Republican megadonor Harlan Crow have provoked public criticism and congressional scrutiny. But Thomas remains a hero to conservatives – evidenced by DeSantis repeatedly holding him up as a model – and Thomas’ stature on the bench has only been rising. Many other would-be presidential contenders, in fact, have also praised Thomas.
The longest serving member of the current court, Thomas, who will turn 75 this month, once found himself regularly in dissent on the right-wing fringe. Now, with the addition of three Trump-appointed justices, he has become the leader of the court’s conservative axis.
Leo, a deep personal friend of Thomas whose well-moneyed network of right-wing advocacy has generated its own condemnation from Democrats, has not taken a public position on a GOP presidential candidate at this early primary stage. He has advised DeSantis over the years and said he admires his approach to the judiciary. But Leo, whose nonprofit last year received an unprecedented $1.6 billion from a single donor for his work, appears to be keeping his options open as the GOP presidential field grows.
DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion rights and other culture war agenda items align at the high court with Thomas. The justice has voted against gay and transgender interests, and he provided one of the crucial five votes last year to reverse Roe v. Wade.
As governor, DeSantis has also regularly touted views from Thomas’ opinions, for example, favoring greater Second Amendment protection for firearms and seeking to diminish First Amendment coverage for press criticism of public officials. DeSantis has echoed Thomas in denouncing the 1964 landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision, which shields potentially libelous statements unless they are made with knowledge they are false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
‘You have simply to hold your ground’
The annual conference of Florida’s chapter of the Federalist Society draws an impressive slate of state and national figures, although it lacks the glitz of the national Federalist Society convention held in Washington each November.
The January 2020 event featured several federal and state judges, as well as former White House counsel Don McGahn, who spoke about judicial nominations under Trump. But the headliner was Thomas.
Thomas sat for an informal Q-and-A with US Court of Appeals Judge Gregory Katsas, who had been a law clerk to Thomas on the DC Circuit and then on the Supreme Court once Thomas was confirmed in 1991. (Trump made Katsas his first appointee to the prominent DC Circuit court.)
The conversation ranged from Thomas’ impoverished roots in Georgia to his originalist approach to the law to the criticism he has confronted through much of his public life.
In his introduction, DeSantis cited Thomas’ “courage” in the face of outside pressure and some justices’ interest in calibrating decisions based on public expectations.
“If the judicial oath means anything, the adherence to the Constitution and to that oath is more important than generating praise from observers in the cheap seats,” DeSantis said, “And I don’t think anybody has embodied that as much as Justice Thomas.”
Thomas referred back to that theme.
“People are going to say things, and you can’t worry about that,” Thomas told Katsas. “What’s important is we took an oath to God to do the job a certain way. We cannot let noise from the cheap seats give you a hard time. I agree with Gov. DeSantis that the background noise, the cognoscenti, the literati, cannot be people who force you to say that two plus two equals five. You have simply to hold your ground.”
Thomas did not respond to CNN’s questions about DeSantis.
A spokesman for DeSantis declined to comment on the Thomas relationship.
Using the Trump playbook
By using Leo for advice on state judicial appointments, DeSantis already is following a Trump playbook. Yet, DeSantis’ supporters say if he wins the White House, he would offer more than a Trump sequel for the federal bench.
“The governor himself, given his course of study and … what he wrote a book about, has very well-developed views on his own of who would be a good justice,” said Florida lawyer Jesse Panuccio, referring to DeSantis’ law degree and his 2011 book exploring the Constitution’s first principles, “Dreams from our Founding Fathers.” “I don’t think he needs to be told by anybody what an excellent jurist looks like.” Panuccio was master of ceremonies for the Orlando Federalist Society event that featured Thomas and also serves on a state commission that recommends judicial nominees to the governor.
Since taking office in 2019, DeSantis has remade the Florida courts with far-right appointees. He has filled a majority of the seats on the seven-member Florida Supreme Court, some twice over.
Two of his early appointees, Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, were tapped later in 2019 by Trump for the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. (In September 2020 when Trump looked for a successor to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Lagoa was rumored to be in contention. It turned out that Trump had quickly and privately offered the job to Amy Coney Barrett, although he kept it quiet for a week.)
“I’ve appointed a total of seven conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court. I inherited the most liberal court in America, and we now have the most conservative constitutional Supreme Court of all 50 states,” DeSantis said at a New Hampshire campaign event recently.
As candidate DeSantis now takes shots at Trump, he is emphasizing that, if elected, he could serve two terms and possibly fill multiple vacancies, while Trump would be limited to a single term because of his prior tenure.
Trump, of course, ran on the Supreme Court in 2016. He vowed to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and carried through with that promise in the selection of three anti-abortion justices, Barrett and, earlier, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
But Trump’s campaign pitch was enhanced by the fact that a vacancy was pending. GOP senators were blocking any action on then-President Barack Obama’s effort to fill a seat opened by the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Trump himself was aware of the distinct potency of the high court in that 2016 campaign.
Midway through his term, he wrote on Twitter, “The Supreme Court was one of the main reasons I got elected President.”