With Barrett Nomination, a D.C. Conservative Power Couple Nears Its Dream

WASHINGTON — Last July, Carrie Severino, a leader among social conservatives dedicated to filling the courts with like-minded judges, appeared on a prominent Catholic television station to slam a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision that turned back the most recent effort to weaken abortion rights.

During the on-air exchange between Mrs. Severino and an anti-abortion activist, Dorinda Bordlee, Ms. Bordlee made a plea: To “get to our ultimate goal,” she said, “we are going to, in the end, need one more justice.”

Three months later Mrs. Severino, the president of the Judicial Crisis Network, and her equally conservative husband, Roger Severino, who heads the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office for Civil Rights, are right where they have hoped to be. The looming confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could usher in a new era of socially conservative jurisprudence — on abortion, health care, gay and transgender rights, and other issues long embraced by the Severinos.

And Washington’s conservative power couple could rightfully claim more than a modicum of credit.

“Professionally we’re hitting on all cylinders, and we’re accomplishing many of our lives’ ambitions,” Mr. Severino said in an interview.

Mrs. and Mr. Severino — she is 43 and he is 45 — live a quiet life in a Virginia suburb of Washington with their six children ranging in age from a toddler to a teenager. They met at Harvard Law School and were married in 2004, shortly after they graduated. Though they are conservative Catholics, they say their efforts are rooted in law, not theology.

But on Catholic and conservative media, they are ubiquitous champions of social conservative causes, the public faces of an interlocking web of groups and individuals in and out of government advancing social conservatism.

In an interview Mrs. Severino rattled off the names of judges and justices her organization helped confirm, and said the “common goal” in pressing for the confirmation of President Trump’s nominees was “to have someone who approaches the law looking to the text and original meaning of the Constitution.”

“One of the goals of originalism,” she said, “is to take your personal beliefs, be they religious or ideological, out of the judicial interpretive process.”

Mr. Severino told a Catholic TV reporter he was “privileged and honored to be a part of what President Trump has set in motion — he set in motion a reinvigorated defense of religious freedom,” adding, “My legacy will be what we have done to respect conscience and religious freedom at H.H.S. — and hopefully, beyond.”

To critics, their influence has become dangerous.

“Roger and Carrie are lovely people,” said Tom Carter, who worked with Mr. Severino on religious liberty causes. “You’d want them as your neighbors. You just don’t want them controlling the courts.”

Mrs. Severino clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, whom she described recently as “the only member of the court who’s actually spoken directly, saying that he thinks that Roe and its progeny were wrongly decided,” referring to Roe v. Wade, the landmark case establishing a constitutional right to abortion. During the contentious confirmation hearings for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Mrs. Severino logged more than 100 media appearances on his behalf.

Judicial Crisis Network is linked to the Federalist Society and a web of anonymously funded groups that together laid the ideological, financial and communications groundwork for Mr. Trump’s effort to fill some 200 judgeships and a third Supreme Court seat with conservative jurists. Judicial Crisis expects to spend at least $10 million to support Judge Barrett with ads and media interviews by Mrs. Severino.

“She’s fantastic,” Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, the lobbying and grass-roots arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said of Mrs. Severino. “Her leadership really puts lead on the target for where support is needed in these fierce judicial confirmation battles.”

Liberals have their own network focused on the judiciary, of course, that includes Demand Justice, the National Women’s Law Center and Alliance for Justice.

Even before this week’s hearings began, Mrs. Severino sought to blunt questions about Judge Barrett’s faith and public stance against abortion.

“The Democrats and their liberal allies think Judge Barrett is ‘too Christian’ or ‘the wrong kind of Christian’ to be a good judge. That is rank bigotry,” she tweeted.

In its ads, her network has worked to disqualify concerns about Judge Barrett’s faith while simultaneously emphasizing it. One ad juxtaposes Judge Barrett’s image with John F. Kennedy’s, with a voice-over of his warning to those who attacked his Catholicism.

Mrs. Severino applied the same contradiction to herself. “I don’t really want to comment on my religious beliefs,” she said in the interview. “I don’t think it is relevant.”

Mr. Severino described the couple as “serious Catholics,” and himself as “proudly pro-life.”

“Having a strong marriage and a strong faith life mean that we’re both dedicated to doing the right thing for the right reasons,” he said. “My motivation is to defend human dignity, and that is informed by my faith,” he added.

Mrs. Severino has helped craft court challenges to the Affordable Care Act and other key conservative fights, which are intertwined with her push for judicial confirmations. Judicial Crisis Network has been one of the largest single donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which has led legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. Last month, 22 Republican state attorneys general issued an open letter urging the Senate to confirm Judge Barrett.

Mr. Severino worked at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that represented Hobby Lobby in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 2014 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated religious freedom. In 2007, Mr. Severino helped write the Becket Fund’s amicus brief supporting California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In and out of government, Mr. Severino has pressed to roll back civil rights protections for gay and transgender Americans.

“Roger and I had many long talks about same-sex marriage, with him trying to convert me,” said Mr. Carter, who was a co-worker at the Becket Fund. “I saw it as a human rights issue in line with the Loving case,” referring to Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court eliminated laws banning interracial marriage.

“But he was adamant that L.G.B.T. was not the same as race,” Mr. Carter said.

Before joining the Trump administration, Mr. Severino led the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, where he opined against the Obama administration’s expansion of civil rights protections for sex to include gender identity.

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At the Health and Human Services Department, Mr. Severino created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division described in the Catholic press as “charged with enforcing the federal laws that already exist to protect doctors, nurses, midwives and other health care workers who refuse to perform, accommodate or assist with certain procedures on religious or moral grounds,” chiefly abortions.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who has investigated the interlocking activities of the Judicial Crisis Network, the Federalist Society and the Trump administration, railed during Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday about the “dark money” influence wielded by the groups.

In an interview he described Mrs. Severino as a bird flitting from branch to branch in a tree representing “this larger scheme to have big anonymous donors capture the Supreme Court and big chunks of the federal judiciary.”

Mrs. Severino insisted anonymity was not about secrecy; her donors, she said, could be subject to “harassment” if their names were made public.

The Severinos appear to their critics to be moving in tandem, with Mr. Severino creating social conservative policy while Mrs. Severino builds a judicial system to uphold it.

“I’m flattered that people think we’re that powerful,” Mr. Severino said. “We set up firewalls. Most of the time she learns what I do by reading it in the newspapers, and vice versa.”

In 2018, the Health and Human Services Department sought to legally define gender under federal civil rights law as an immutable condition determined by the genitals that a person is born with, effectively defining transgender out of existence.

In June, the department finalized a rule removing protections against discrimination on the basis of sex for transgender people seeking health care under the Affordable Care Act.

Both rules have been challenged in court.

Their opponents seethe at the Severinos’ doggedness.

“Carrie and Roger Severino are interested in remaking the legal and regulatory landscape of this country in their image,” said Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights organization.

Mrs. Severino said promotion of Judge Barrett’s nomination is being coordinated from a “war room” at Judicial Crisis that includes the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, Catholic Vote, America First Policies, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.

While Judge Barrett’s advocates attack any suggestion that her judicial views might be influenced by her Catholicism, they are also proud of the church’s impact on the courts.

“Catholics actually, in a very unique way, have a very keen understanding of the crisis that we were having with the judiciary, but not just because of the abortion issue, but because Catholics understood that there’s something about following rules, and there’s something about humility, which are important in human life,” Leonard Leo, the longtime head of the Federalist Society, said in an interview for a presidential history archive.

Judicial Crisis Network was born in 2005, under the name Judicial Confirmation Network. The organization worked alongside Mr. Leo, who took a leave from the Federalist Society to organize conservative campaigns supporting two Supreme Court nominees, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., according to an investigation of the Federalist Society network in The Washington Post.

The Judicial Confirmation Network became the Judicial Crisis Network during the Obama administration. Mrs. Severino took the helm in 2010.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Lipton, Erica L. Green, Katie Benner and Robert Pear. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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