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Students For Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action group challenging race-conscious admissions in the Supreme Court, is largely funded by conservative trusts — including organizations with financial ties to the Federalist Society, a legal network founded at Yale that is linked to six of the nine sitting SCOTUS justices. 

These six form the Court’s conservative majority, and legal scholars expect that they will be instrumental in upcoming votes that will likely overturn affirmative action — putting a stop to race-conscious college admissions.

According to public Internal Revenue Service filings, SFFA raised more than $8.5 million between 2015 and 2020, with around $8.2 million in expenses over the same time period. In 2019, conservative foundations DonorsTrust, Searle Freedom Trust and the Sarah Scaife Foundation donated $1 million of the over $1.5 million SFFA raised that year — almost two-thirds of their annual revenue. 

These foundations are donor-advised funds, which are not legally required to disclose the identities of its donors, most of whom choose anonymity. The use of anonymous donations is not a partisan tactic — Democrats and Republicans alike have leveraged dark money, which refers to funds routed through loosely regulated nonprofits, to finance campaigns. 

“I would say the Searle and Scaife Foundations … fund a wide variety of conservative causes,” Federalist Society co-founder and co-chair Steven Calabresi ’80 LAW ’83 told the News. “They’re the equivalent — though far less wealthy — of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. They do similar things, they fund some speakers and organizations — it’s not uncommon.” 

On Oct. 31, SFFA brought two lawsuits to the Supreme Court: one against Harvard that alleges discrimination against Asian American applications, and one against the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill that alleges discrimination against Asian American and white applicants.

Founder and president of SFFA Edward Blum told The New York Times earlier this month the group had received more than 5,000 individual monetary contributions. But The Harvard Crimson reported that public filings show a handful of conservative foundations — including DonorsTrust, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the 85 Fund — donate the vast majority of SFFA’s capital. 

All four of these organizations hold ties to the Federalist Society, a network of primarily libertarian and conservative lawyers. In 1982, Calabresi co-founded the group at Yale alongside students at Yale Law School, Harvard Law School and the University of Chicago Law School. Now, six of the nine sitting Supreme Court Justices — Samuel Alito LAW ’75, Clarence Thomas LAW ’74, Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — are current or former members of the society.

Calabresi is also a visiting professor of law at Yale. 

What are these funds?

The Searle Freedom Trust donated $500,000 to SFFA annually from 2017 to 2019, and the Scaife Foundation contributed $250,000 of SFFA’s approximately $1.5 million total donor revenue in 2019. The Scaife Foundation is also reported to fund the Federalist Society

According to The Harvard Crimson, DonorsTrust contributed $2.5 million to SFFA between 2017 and 2019. Their largest contribution was $1.5 million in 2018 — and it made up more than half of SFFA’s funding for the year. 

In January of 2021, CNBC reported that DonorsTrust gave millions of dollars to conservative organizations in 2019 that later went on to push false claims of election fraud after the 2020 election. Other recipients of DonorsTrust funding include the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association’s Freedom Action Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society itself. 

An analysis by the Columbia Journalism Review showed that Charles Koch and David Koch were the top contributors to DonorsTrust in 2011, and the brothers donated millions in the 2010s. Though David Koch died in 2019, the Koch brothers are known for their role in Koch Industries — the second-largest private company in the United States — and their work funneling libertarian and conservative donor revenue into television and other forms of multimedia advertising. 

In a statement to the News, DonorsTrust CEO and president Lawson Bader said the organization does not comment on their donors’ identities. 

“We do not comment on — nor disclose — specific contributions to DonorsTrust as we expect (and the burden falls on) the donor to disclose such gifts according to applicable IRS requirements and public filings,” Bader wrote. 

Anonymous trusts like these are often closely linked among themselves. DonorsTrust is a core funder for the 85 Fund, another organization behind SFFA’s financing. The 85 Fund, a legal alias for the Judicial Education Project and the Honest Elections Project, was founded by Leonard Leo, who presently co-chairs the Federalist Society with Calabresi. In 2018, more than 99 percent of The 85 Fund’s capital came from a single donation from DonorsTrust. In 2020, DonorsTrust contributed $20 million. 

“We can confirm that in 2018 DonorsTrust donor-advisors recommended $6.96 million to Judicial Education Project for general operations,” DonorsTrust President and CEO Lawson Bader wrote in a statement to the News. “We do not know how JEP allocated those funds.” 

The 85 Fund, or JEP, is an extensive network of Leo-advised organizations that influence conservative policy and judicial nominees, CNBC reports. When former President Donald Trump appointed current justices Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 and Neil Gorsuch to the Court, Leo was a key outside advisor. Per Axios, Leo began The 85 Fund — and fleshed out his broader funding network — to counter growing influence by the left’s own dark money web, Arabella Advisors. 

In 2020, SFFA received a $250,000 donation in 2020 from The 85 Fund, The Harvard Crimson reported. 

In January of 2020, Leo left his former position as Federalist Society executive vice president to start a conservative consulting firm called CRC Advisors, which has developed a history of lobbying against climate change mitigation policies. He remained co-chair of the Federalist Society’s board of directors.

Calabresi told the News that Leo privately advised people in the presidential administration but did not discuss or clear judicial recommendations — or any other private governmental matters — with Calabresi, the Society or any Board members.

“There was a lot written about the Federalist Society being involved in picking judges,” Calabresi told the News. “What happened there is that the first White House Counsel … hired Federalist Society members to work as government employees making recommendations, not Society members. These were personal recommendations, not Federalist Society recommendations.” 

Between 2014 and 2017, as Leo advised Trump on these judicial picks, The Washington Post reports that he was working with allies to raise more than $250 million in anonymous donations. These funds were partially used to support conservative policies and judicial appointments — including, per NPR, commercials for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.  

The 85 Fund, Searle Freedom Trust and Sarah Scaife Foundation did not respond to requests for comment to this story.

Where does SFFA fit in?

In her statement to The Harvard Crimson, DonorsTrust spokesperson Carolyn Bolton confirmed that the fund donated $2.5 million to Students for Fair Admissions from 2017 to 2019. 

“The sum granted out to Students for Fair Admissions during that three-year time frame reflects our commitment to honoring donor intent and helping our givers support charities that align with their diverse interests,” Bolton wrote in a statement. “DonorsTrust is not involved in how Students for Fair Admissions operates or how it achieves its organizational mission.”

Calabresi said that foundations can give money to a wide variety of different organizations, noting specifically that the Federalist Society has a policy of not engaging in litigation. 

“The Federalist Society acts like an umbrella, including libertarians, classical liberals, conservatives and moderate liberals who just enjoy coming to debates,” Calabresi said. “We were afraid that a litigation center would drive people away, and we wanted to keep the debates alive.”  

He added that the Society has never taken a position on litigation or pending legislation, calling this a differentiation from the more left-leaning American Bar Association as it rates judicial nominees. Calabresi further noted that he has not been involved with fundraising for the Society. Instead, Calabresi’s responsibilities have centered around organizing symposiums, debates, speaker events and conventions.  

Conservative legal entrepreneur Edward Blum founded SFFA in 2014 with the goal of tearing down affirmative action. According to the group’s website, SFFA is a nonprofit membership group that now includes over 20,000 people who consider race-related college admissions policies to be “unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.”

Blum did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In an SFFA press release sent to the News about the Oct. 31 hearings, Blum described his moral opposition to race-based affirmative action.

“It is a moral failure that our most competitive universities place high schoolers on racial registers and tell the world that their skin color affects what they think and know, and what they like and do not like,” Blum wrote in the statement. 

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer tool offers summary data for nonprofit tax returns as well as more detailed documents from the IRS. The IRS has provided extracted financial data for SFFA’s 2020 filing but has not yet released the more-detailed source documents.

The Nonprofit Explorer reveals that since 2016, SFFA has paid Blum $48,000 annually. Other individuals listed as key employees include Treasurer Richard Fisher, Secretary Abigail Fisher, Director Alex Chen, Director Joe Zhou and Director Hua Eva Guo, who is newly listed as of 2019. In every year but one, all the other employees received $0; in 2019, Richard Fisher was reportedly paid $3,150.

Abigail Fisher, her father Richard Fisher and Blum initially co-founded SFFA to raise questions about whether Abigail — a white student — was fairly denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. 

The 2013 case marked Blum’s first time challenging affirmative action before the Supreme Court. Blum claimed that affirmative action disadvantaged white applicants, citing Abigail Fisher as an example of a white applicant who was discriminated against and denied admission. In 2016, the Court ruled 4-3 that Fisher was not discriminated against and allowed race-conscious admissions to stand.

Now, decisions on the two affirmative action cases currently before the Supreme Court are expected by the spring of 2023. 

Anika Arora Seth is the 146th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. Anika previously covered STEM at Yale as well as admissions, alumni and financial aid. She also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production & Design editor and was one of the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Anika is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and women's, gender and sexuality studies.