The Low-Key Republican Officials Quietly Dismantling All of Our Rights

Gun Rights

One of the greatest destabilizers of democracy that almost nobody knows about is a little tax-exempt group called RAGA, which stands for the Republican Attorneys General Association. It represents more than half the states’ chief legal officers, and its members are on the front lines of pretty much every single important legal movement in the country. Its moves and funding are directed, of course, by everyone’s favorite little Monopoly Man Money Guy, Leonard Leo. Yet the group receives almost no sustained public attention or accountability. Recently, Heidi Przybyla at Politico reported on how RAGA tried to run a D.C. official who had dared investigate Leo out of office. And once you actually train your focus on RAGA, they tend to pop up everywhere, over and over again. The group was behind amicus briefs in the outrageous social media case Murthy v. Missouri. They are driving the efforts to get around federal emergency treatment laws for abortion in the forthcoming EMTALA cases. They’re pushing for Texas-style S.B. 4 legislation in several states. And that doesn’t even get you to the whole raft of RAGA interventions when it came to trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

On this week’s Amicus podcast, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with Lisa Graves, founder and executive director of True North Research, to try to shine a light on an obscure group that works hand in glove with Leo and dark-money interests to stymie democracy and roll back environmental protections, civil rights, reproductive rights, and other freedoms for the very citizens they are elected to serve. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

To listen to the full episode of Amicus, join Slate Plus.

Dahlia Lithwick: Attorneys general were once kind of nonpartisan. They were apt to work across political lines, for the interests of the residents of the state.

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Lisa Graves: All state attorneys general once belonged to the National Association of Attorneys General, NAAG, and it was a bipartisan group, a group of all the state attorneys general conferring about the practices in their state and cases that transcend jurisdiction.

There was a significant set of lawsuits in the 1990s around tobacco because there had been a long-standing effort by the tobacco industry to deny the carcinogenic effects of smoking, despite the fact that the tobacco companies knew full well that their products did cause cancer. In fact, one of the things that had a fundamentally disruptive effect on U.S. law and policy in the past 50 years is that a then–tobacco lawyer named Lewis Powell wrote something called the Powell Memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, circa 1971. This was in response to a decade of environmental regulation to protect against rivers that were on fire, and smoke stacks, and pollution, in addition to efforts to try to regulate smoking. And so the tobacco lawyer, Lewis Powell, wrote a memo basically saying businesses need to get more involved in policy, and lobbying, and universities in order to change our laws to benefit corporations. He was rewarded shortly after with an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, and so that’s 1971.

Fast forward to 1991. Finally, there is concerted effort by attorneys general across the country to hold the tobacco industry liable for the consequences to people’s lives, but also to our health care system. As that was ongoing, the Republican attorneys general decided to create their own attorney general association to pursue their own agenda and actually raise money from industries that they were supposed to regulate in order to fund this operation, which was designed to fuel their campaigns. The history is deeply embedded in antipathy to public regulation, government regulation of industries that have literally killed thousands, if not millions, of Americans in the form of the tobacco industry, for example.

There’s the Leonard Leo piece in the middle of this, which is also just incredibly familiar, and this is your job, follow the money. So help us understand who’s paying to play and who are they paying?

Leonard Leo’s network is the largest funder of RAGA. There are corporations that have funded RAGA, Koch Industries, tobacco companies, energy companies. And some of my research about Leonard Leo showed that there’s this group called the Judicial Education Project—and it is now known as the 85 Fund because these names are all disposable names for them. But back then it was called the Judicial Education Project, and we’d been looking into it in part because it’s the group that Leonard Leo used to pay Ginni Thomas secretly through Kellyanne Conway’s firm from a secret donor. That was after Harlan Crow staked Ginni Thomas with $500,000 to fund her group, Liberty Central, while the Citizens United decision was pending.

And what you see is this group that was deployed to basically pay Ginni Thomas secretly, starts filing amicus briefs, and it notes in its filing that it’s paying particular attention to the potential of the state of West Virginia to have a new attorney general, who became the attorney general who was basically deployed to attack the Clean Power Plan: Patrick Morrisey. So, here’s a group that is intimately tied to Leonard Leo’s operation. It’s the group he trusts to get the money into the hands of Ginni Thomas, the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice. It’s a group focusing on the election of a particular attorney general investigating what the powers of the attorney general of West Virginia might be. And then Morrisey gets elected and he becomes the tip of the spear in attacking the effort by the Obama administration to write reasonable rules about power plants.

Fast forward eight years, and suddenly in 2022, just as the court is destroying Roe that same term, it’s saying you can regulate basically women’s bodies, but you can’t regulate corporations to force utilities to at least put some of their money into renewable energy under the Clean Power Plan.

It is really full circle. It is a sort of surround sound in terms of their intention and their focus. It does show how long this plan is in place before its major victories.

We sometimes think that Leonard Leo to the Supreme Court is a one-way vector. But it is in fact a triangle, right? Because the third vector is to the state AGs who are bringing these cases, who are as much a part of this deregulatory agenda and this anti-choice agenda, and the anti-LGBTQ+ agenda as the court itself. The other thing is this is a move so disaggregated from state welfare and state politics. We’re now doing just straight up partisan Republican Party politics, and that turn is really evident in terms of RAGA’s participation in the events of Jan. 6.

So RAGA had an arm called the Rule of Law Defense Fund, deployed to do robocalls, to urge people to go to the Jan. 6 events that Trump said would be wild, to go there on the day that Congress was supposed to be certifying the election, as he was mounting this intimidation campaign against [Vice President Mike] Pence, unleashing his followers to assail him. And this is in the context of weeks of efforts by Trump and his lawyers and advisers. trying to help him execute a coup. You had the state attorneys general actively involved in some of this litigation to try to stop other states from certifying the election. The group itself through this Rule of Law Defense Fund was actively involved in peddling the big lucrative lie about the election to push people to go to the mall on Jan. 6. There was sort of shock and horror that a group of state attorneys general would be involved in trying to aid the precursor events to the violent insurrection at the Capitol. And big companies said they weren’t going to fund RAGA. And so for a moment there, there was a bright light shining on RAGA and on the events around the capital and these AGs.

But then months later, some of those companies came back to fund RAGA. The accountability light was on and then off for the companies that were funding RAGA in 2020. In addition to Leonard Leo’s network, Koch Industries, Comcast, Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, TikTok, 1-800-CONTACTS, Chevron, the National Rifle Association, Monsanto, Facebook, Fox, Uber, Coca-Cola, Exxon, and Google were some of the main funders of it.

Of course it didn’t last. Leonard Leo continues to be the biggest subsidizer of RAGA through the money that is coming through his network, but it’s also the case that they’re facing no consequences, basically allowing them to just get away with it. There’s been no consequence for them, and the Rule of Law Defense Fund still exists. RAGA still exists, and many of these attorneys general have been actively involved in other efforts that make it harder for Americans to vote, and they may well be involved this fall in a repeat of 2020 in terms of their efforts to protect Trump at any cost.

Texas AG Ken Paxton, the mayor of RAGA Town, brings this emergency motion to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2021 trying to set aside the vote in four other states Biden had won. We had 17 Republican attorneys general sign on to that brief. This is an election that the actual United States attorney general, Bill Barr, had repeatedly said there’s no fraud there. These guys knew better and got in on the action of pressuring the court. Fast forward, these same RAGA actors are somehow neck deep in the Trump immunity suit at the Supreme Court now.

They have continued to attack our democracy in a variety of ways. This notion that Trump has some sort of unlimited immunity, or this very broad conception of immunity, and it goes back to this notion that they claim to be adherents to the rule of law, and yet the immunity case reveals the lie of that. If the rule of law means anything, it means a president is not above the law.

Clearly all those puff pieces from the winter about the great distance between Leo’s agenda and Donald Trump’s and how there was one time when they wouldn’t make eye contact at Mar-a-Lago … These are Leonard Leo’s foot soldiers who are presumably all in for MAGA, for Project 2025, for whatever the Heritage Foundation is doing. There’s no distance to be found between Leonard Leo’s project and RAGA’s project and Donald Trump’s project should he win in 2024?

There is no distance on the real policy, this agenda to use the Supreme Court to strip us of our rights, to use the court to make it harder for us to deal with climate change, to use the court to roll back reproductive rights, gay marriage, and more. These are all part and parcel of Leo’s agenda and these attorneys general are on that agenda. And Trump, he’s the author of that by basically deferring to Leo in who gets on the Supreme Court. One of the things that was happening in the past decade was that we know that Barry Seid, who’s the Chicago billionaire who ultimately gave Leo control of a $1.6 billion trust fund to deploy at his will, was also secretly funding briefs by RAGA.

We helped document that in 2020 during the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, the Bradley Foundation was funneling some of that money toward briefs, not just by Republican attorneys general, but by Republican senators sitting on the judiciary committee and ultimately in 2020, after Leo gets somehow dramatically richer. So you have Leo himself and the people around Leo getting a lot of money from people who were interested in what they were doing to the courts. Leonard Leo doesn’t need to be friendly with Donald Trump anymore. He’s got what he wanted. He has a court that has six Republican appointees on it with a reliable vote, in essence, for his long-term agenda and that court could remain in power for 20 to 30 years. He has captured the U.S. Supreme Court. He doesn’t need to be buddies with Donald Trump.

Last week the court heard the mifepristone case. EMTALA is the other abortion case that’s coming next month at the court. RAGA’s sticky little fingers are all over EMTALA too.

Some of these state attorneys general are involved in amicus briefs in this case, and you have a person who is now the attorney general for Idaho, who has spearheaded that effort. His name is Raúl Labrador. He was formally part of the Freedom Caucus when he was in Congress. He was picked to take over the state AG role in Idaho over a Republican who maybe was not playing enough ball with the powers that be. He decided after Dobbs that he was going to be imposing his personal views against abortion as a matter of law, as the attorney general. So the attorney general of Idaho, who is a lawyer who has lawyers who work for the state of Idaho, decided he was going to use Idaho taxpayer dollars to hire the Alliance Defending Freedom to defend the state of Idaho in its efforts to not comply with the federal regulations under EMTALA, which tells hospitals not to turn people away who need care. In this instance, this regulation has been extended by the Biden administration in response to Dobbs to make sure that pregnant people who present themselves in an ER have a right to have their health protected.

And Idaho has a law on the books that bars abortion except if someone’s life is in danger, and that has been sort of interpreted to be at the brink of death. EMTALA says you don’t have to wait to the brink of death to give someone an abortion. But Idaho doesn’t want to apply that law and has sought out, with the help of Erin Hawley and Alliance Defending Freedom, to take that case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It really pierces through the rhetoric that these people care about the health of women. Because these people like Raúl Labrador believe that their personal view on abortion as embodied in the law of Idaho should only allow someone to get an abortion if they’re at the brink of death.

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