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Ron DeSantis is drawing from the Trump Supreme Court playbook


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.

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