This Year’s Big Winner At The Supreme Court? Billionaires

Gun Rights

Forget giving to politicians—America’s savviest donors are spending to influence the Supreme Court, and reaping returns. It happens in a two-stage process. First, billionaires donate to nonprofits. Then, those nonprofits pay for lawyers, file briefs and—most importantly—impact decisions.

Up and down the docket, big money led to big victories this year, overturning the decades-old precedent for how federal agencies operate, lifting the ban on bump stocks for guns and, of course, giving former President Donald Trump some immunity from prosecution. Below, a list of the biggest billionaire winners (and a couple of rare losers).

WINNERS

Charles Koch

Net worth: $59.2 billion

Case: Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo

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Money trail: Koch network funded Cause of Action, which helped bring case

Billionaire Charles Koch’s right-wing fundraising apparatus has long spent its resources trying to dismantle what critics call the “administrative state.” This term, the work paid off. The Supreme Court overturned a 40-year-old precedent giving federal agencies broad power to interpret laws, siding with herring fishermen in two cases who opposed having to pay for federal monitors on their vessels. The group that brought one of the two cases, Cause of Action, is part of Koch’s Stand Together network, drawing all of its funding from Koch-linked groups.

Donald Trump

Net worth: $5.5 billion

Cases: Trump v. Anderson, Trump v. U.S.

Money trail: Trump campaign and leadership PAC spent about $18 million on lawyers

Trump won twice at the Supreme Court this term, with justices deciding he couldn’t be kicked off Colorado’s ballot, then giving him some immunity from criminal charges. The court ruled that Trump is protected from prosecution for official acts he undertook in office, while saying he is still on the hook for unofficial behavior. The best part for Trump: His donors funded the litigation, via his campaign and leadership PAC, Save America—neither of which has received a cent from the former president. Lawyers in the immunity case, who also represent him in other litigation, received more than $12 million of donor money through the end of May.

Irwin Jacobs

Net worth: $1.2 billion (as of 2019)

Case: National Rifle Association v. Vullo

Money trail: ACLU spent $74.5 million on litigation in 2022, with Supreme Court funding coming from $20 million gift from Irwin and Joan Jacobs

The ACLU is a frequent presence at the Supreme Court—it boasts that it has appeared more often than any other group besides the federal government. This term, it notched another win for an unlikely ally, the NRA. The ACLU represented the gun-rights group as it asked the Supreme Court to rule against a New York regulator who warned companies about the risks of doing business with the controversial gun group. While the ACLU acknowledged it doesn’t agree with the NRA or its mission, the left-wing darling went to bat for the group because it believed officials shouldn’t use their power to “blacklist disfavored political groups.” The Supreme Court unanimously agreed.

Elon Musk and Mark Cuban

Net worth: $240.2 billion and $5.4 billion

Case: Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy

Money trail: Musk and Cuban joined a group of investors in urging the court to curtail the SEC’s power

Hedge-fund manager George Jarkesy won at the Supreme Court after challenging the SEC’s use of independent administrative law judges. The court ruled that legal challenges for securities fraud should be heard by a jury instead of a specialized judge, potentially calling into question disputes throughout the federal government that are typically handled outside of the judiciary. Jarkesy got a boost at the court from a group of businesspeople—including Elon Musk and Mark Cuban—who urged the court in a brief to side with the hedge-fund manager. They argued that using administrative law judges, who are more specialized judges within the executive branch, harmed investors, giving the SEC too much power and leaving investors unclear about the fate of companies confronting the agency.

Unknown Donors

Cases: Relentless v. Department of Commerce, Garland v. Cargill

Money trail: Gave money to New Civil Liberties Alliance, which spent $4 million on litigation in 2022

Some of the biggest players influencing the Supreme Court might never be known, since they route their money through “dark money” groups that conceal their donors. One of the biggest fundraising networks impacting the judiciary is spearheaded by right-wing activist Leonard Leo, who has used his web of nonprofits to install justices and sway cases. Leo has long tried to dismantle federal bureaucracy, and groups linked to him donated heavily to New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to weakening the administrative state that was behind the second herring fishermen case. The alliance won the Relentless case, as well as a suit over the government’s ban on bump stocks for firearms. The group lost a third case, however, which challenged the Biden administration’s contacts with social-media platforms.

LOSERS

David Green

Net worth: $14.1 billion

Cases: FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, Moyle v. U.S.

Money trail: Green has donated to two groups that fund abortion challenges

Billionaire Hobby Lobby founder David Green has used his fortune to prop up Christian causes—including several groups that sent money to the Supreme Court this term. Green has confirmed donating to the National Christian Foundation and the Servant Foundation, two Christian organizations that served as the biggest institutional donors to Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing legal group behind two abortion challenges this term, over emergency abortions and the abortion-pill mifepristone. The justices threw both cases out, but litigation is expected to continue in lower courts.

Sackler Family

Net worth: $5.2 billion

Case: Harrington v. Purdue Pharma

Money trail: The Sacklers currently have at least an estimated $11.2 billion in liquid assets, with a $6 billion settlement up in the air

The Supreme Court shot down a bankruptcy settlement that would have shielded the Sacklers, longtime owners of opioid-maker Purdue Pharma, from civil liability for their role in the opioid crisis going forward. Members of the Sackler family—who no longer manage Purdue Pharma—said in a statement they “remain hopeful” about reaching a settlement. The price tag of such a deal, however, seems likely to go up from its previous $6 billion.

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