Meet the Conservative Power Couple Behind Trump’s War on Your Civil Rights
Carrie Severino has been reshaping the judiciary, while Roger Severino has been undermining the laws it upholds
Carrie Campbell Severino posed for a masked selfie last Monday night on the darkened White House grounds to watch her former boss, Justice Clarence Thomas, swear in 48-year-old Amy Coney Barrett to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. As the president and public face of the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), the financial muscle behind President Donald Trump’s takeover of the federal courts, Carrie had returned to the executive mansion where, weeks earlier, her years of behind-the-scenes work had paid off: three Supreme Court justices in three and a half years.
JCN is a conservative nonprofit that bankrolls the confirmation fights for scores of predominantly young, white, male, conservative judicial nominees to lifetime seats on the federal bench and in the state courts. Founded in 2004 as the Judicial Confirmation Network to support President George W. Bush’s picks, the organization helped elevate conservative nominees John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Carrie joined JCN in 2010, the same year the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling ushered in a new age of unlimited campaign spending. She’s served the organization in a variety of roles over the decade, including chief counsel, policy director, and president. On JCN’s website, she is the only staff member listed.
Under Trump, JCN effectively added Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and now Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett’s nomination cost JCN, by its own admission, $10 million, and Severino promoted the then-nominee on ABC News’ This Week, CNN, CBS News, and C-SPAN, as well as to the New York Times and other high-profile mainstream news outlets. Barrett’s confirmation was “a triumph on many levels,” Severino wrote in a New York Post article.
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It was also likely a personal triumph for Carrie and her husband, Roger Severino, the top civil rights officer in Trump’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Roger is the director of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the sprawling federal agency. The office’s longstanding mission is to inform the public about health privacy and civil rights and to work with hospitals, insurers, and agencies to resolve complaints and ultimately enforce the law.
Under President Obama, OCR was perhaps best known for crafting regulations to make it easier for people marginalized as a function of their language abilities, sexual orientation, and gender identity to access health care. Its regulations expanded language access for people with limited English proficiency and clarified that federal protections against sex discrimination include patients’ gender identity and pregnancy status. Roger has used Trump’s health civil rights office to install the Republican Party’s long-sought regulatory barrier of “religious liberty” between LGBTQ patients and health care, gender-affirming or otherwise, and to make contraception and abortion even harder to access than they already are.
The Severinos have been working both inside and outside of the government to shape it according to their beliefs. But what makes the Severinos’ marriage unique is its grip on two of the three branches of government — and the enduring handprints they may leave on both if Trump provides them with the cover of another term.
Roger and Carrie Severino are far from the only influential married couple in Donald Trump’s orbit. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are White House advisers known collectively as “Javanka.” Stephen Miller is Trump’s architect of the administration’s family separation policy; his wife, Katie Miller, is Vice President Mike Pence’s spokesperson and former U.S. Department of Homeland Security mouthpiece for the administration’s family separation policy. Mercedes Schlapp, the former White House strategic communications director turned campaign aide, is married to Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union that hosts CPAC, where Covid-19 spread early in the U.S. pandemic.
“I’m flattered that people think we’re that powerful,” Roger told the New York Times last month. “We set up firewalls. Most of the time she learns what I do by reading it in the newspapers, and vice versa.” Carrie Severino is just as admiring of her husband. “He is my advocate when I sell myself short,” she wrote in Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court, a book she co-authored with Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist.
The Severinos met at Harvard Law School in the early 2000s, where Roger, the son of immigrants from Colombia, led the Society for Law, Life and Religion. Two years behind him was Carrie Campbell from western Michigan, who would become the vice president of the group, which opposes abortion rights. They married in 2004. (Neither Carrie nor Roger Severino responded to queries for this article.) Now in their forties, the Virginia-based couple has six children. Carrie rarely mentions her family in public, though she used her platform to tout Barrett’s seven kids as a qualification to sit on the Supreme Court.
Roger has been more open about his biography, including his childhood growing up in Los Angeles. He attended Rosemead High School and received a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Southern California — though he told The Atlantic that his high school teachers doubted the intelligence of a Hispanic kid like him. His interracial marriage to a white woman does not go unnoticed by Roger or among the overwhelmingly white Washington establishment. “I still kind of joke with my wife, when we go to black-tie affairs, if I’m going to get mistaken for a waiter again this time …” he said in the magazine’s 2017 profile.
Both Severinos participated in a recent article for the New York Times about the “conservative power couple” on the cusp of realizing their dreams with Barrett’s confirmation. But the personal beliefs informing the Severinos’ professional goals seemed to be off-limits. All Roger would say is that he and his wife are “serious Catholics,” while Carrie maintained that her religious beliefs were irrelevant.
What makes the Severinos’ marriage unique is its grip on two of the three branches of government — and the enduring handprints they may leave on both if Trump provides them with the cover of another term.
Carrie and Roger are working hard to manifest what seems to be their shared vision of religious liberty: a country without LGBTQ-inclusive health care and accessible, let alone legal, abortion. They also denounced marriage equality in a joint Heritage Foundation appearance days after the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. Before he joined OCR, Roger Severino opposed state-level marriage equality cases in 2006 and 2007 on behalf of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that represented Hobby Lobby in its 2014 Supreme Court victory recognizing religious rights for corporations. At the Heritage Foundation, he co-authored a 2016 op-ed calling the Obama administration’s transgender student protections “radical social experiments” and repeatedly misgendered the student at the center of the legal fight.
“Really what it all comes down to is that everybody who was working on the outside to undermine the rules is now inside rewriting the rules,” said Mary Alice Carter, senior adviser for Equity Forward, a reproductive rights transparency and accountability group that runs an HHS oversight campaign.
Though Carrie remains on the outside, she’s the ultimate conservative Washington establishment insider. Together, the Severinos are trying to make and uphold decisions that affect people’s everyday lives far beyond the halls of power.
This past June, Roger Severino completed work on an attempted gut job of HHS regulations intended to enforce nondiscrimination protections in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act — still the law of the land despite Trump’s campaign pledges to repeal it.
Section 1557 of the law prohibits health care inequities on the basis of sex, which the Obama-era regulations explicitly defined as discrimination in the form of sex stereotyping, gender identity, and a wide range of pregnancy-related conditions, including abortion, in any health care setting or by any heath care insurer that receives federal funds.
Roger directed the rewrite of the regulations into a rule broadening the existing web of conscience objections, potentially encouraging health care workers to refuse to treat patients on religious grounds. The rule applies to those seeking abortions or having miscarriages — as occurred at a Catholic hospital in Washington state — as well as to queer and trans patients, whether they’re seeking gender-affirming care or treatment for the common cold. And it cuts $2.9 billion worth of the Affordable Care Act’s notices and communications — “regulatory burdens,” in Roger words, for some 25 million Americans with limited English proficiency.
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Roger issued the rule change on June 12, 2020, the four-year anniversary of the Pulse gay nightclub massacre, timing he called “purely coincidental.” Meanwhile, Republican-controlled states were exploiting the pandemic to further restrict abortions, and Trump’s Food and Drug Administration was refusing to relax its regulations on medication abortions. (A federal judge forced the FDA to suspend this rule in July, and the Supreme Court declined to weigh in just yet.)
“It’s nothing short of jaw-dropping to imagine that in the middle of a global pandemic… the federal government issued a regulation that would take away express protections against discrimination in health care,” said Louise Melling, a deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Melling and other progressive legal experts maintain that Section 1557 of the law itself still protects LGBTQ people and reproductive health patients, and the courts thus far have agreed, despite the conservative bulldozing of the federal judiciary. Roger’s changes to the Section 1557 rule were subject to at least five legal challenges from various advocacy groups and Democratic state attorneys general; four of them are still pending. HHS has filed multiple appeals to uphold Roger’s work in some of the very same courts where Carrie has used JCN to help install friendly judges.
“It’s all part of one larger strategy, which is to make sure that their policy priorities come to pass and don’t meet any resistance along the way,” said Douglas Keith, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. It’s a strategy poised to last generations, particularly when it comes to the slew of JCN-approved lifetime federal judges, some of whom the American Bar Association has found to be “not qualified” for the bench. And there are so many judges: With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s help, 220 of Trump’s judges joined the federal bench by late October 2020.
“Any progressive policy agenda that’s pursued by the next administration or future administrations is going to run straight into this gauntlet,” said Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal, the advocacy group representing one of the legal challenges to the new Section 1557 rule.
Roger’s attempt to undermine LGBTQ legal protections in health care came shortly before 5 p.m. on June 12. Even with all of the Severinos’ work, they haven’t always won. Less than 72 hours later, the Supreme Court affirmed LGBTQ legal protections in the workplace with a decisive 6–3 vote.
“The fact that Roger Severino did not wait for this highly anticipated decision… certainly undercuts his integrity as a lawyer, even putting aside the notion that the leader of a civil rights office should be seeking ways to use the law to provide protections instead of stripping them away,” said Sunu Chandy, legal director for the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), a legal advocacy group that has sued the Trump-era HHS and OCR over reproductive rights and access issues. (Chandy reported directly to Roger Severino in her previous role as former deputy director for civil rights at HHS.)
After the decision, Carrie made it clear publicly that JCN didn’t spend $10 million on ads for Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation, only to have him later write a majority opinion affirming that employment discrimination “because of sex” applies to sexual orientation and gender identity. “Justice Scalia would be disappointed that his successor has bungled textualism so badly today, for the sake of appealing to college campuses and editorial boards,” she wrote in a series of tweets after the Gorsuch decision.
The Severinos may have been down, but they weren’t out. “This is a setback for them. This isn’t the end for them,” Sharita Gruberg, senior director of the Center for American Progress’ LGBTQ Research and Communications Project, said in an interview. Four months later, Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation would prove her right.
Roger Severino repeatedly attributes growing up as the child of Colombian immigrants with low incomes to his commitment to civil rights but pits his own lived experiences with discrimination against those of queer and trans people. “I faced actual discrimination and mistreatment,” he told Politico as part of a story about growing fear among HHS’ LGBTQ employees, some of whom removed their wedding rings and took down photos of partners and spouses at their desks. “We have seen him appropriate civil rights laws and language to protect those who would discriminate,” said NWLC senior counsel Rachel Easter.
Roger made one of the most public displays of his beliefs at a January 2018 HHS ceremony in which he announced a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the civil rights office to “help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice.” By “victims,” he meant against health care workers, not patients.
Until then, OCR operated without a religious liberty arm; it had received 10 conscience complaints from 2005 to 2015, recalled Jocelyn Samuels, Roger’s immediate predecessor, to NPR. That paled in comparison to 20,000 health information privacy complaints and thousands of civil rights complaints received annually. Roger soon self-reported a spike in conscience complaints and used it to justify OCR’s May 2019 “conscience” rule, effectively encouraging a broad range of health care workers to turn away LGBTQ and abortion patients. Only 20 or so complaints were relevant, let alone valid, HHS ultimately admitted before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, one of three federal courts to invalidate the conscience rule before it could take effect.
The Severinos may consider their beliefs to be their own, but they seem to underpin how they write policy and transform the courts. To the New York Times, the Severinos erected a wall between their Catholic beliefs and their work dismantling the sacrosanct wall between church and state — a constitutional principle that many conservatives reject as a “constitutional myth.” Carrie invariably promotes “originalist” and “textualist” judicial nominees inclined to disregard that principle in spite of their supposedly close read of the U.S. Constitution. She’s chalked up criticism to religious bias, denouncing scrutiny during Barrett’s 2017 Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals nomination hearing as “ugly anti-Catholic bigotry.” But plenty of Catholics affirm LGBTQ and reproductive rights — one of them, Sonia Sotomayor, sits on the Supreme Court alongside five Catholic conservatives, including Barrett.
“The leader of a civil rights office should be seeking ways to use the law to provide protections instead of stripping them away.”
Roger’s regulatory approach is similarly out of touch, according to Gruberg of the Center for American Progress. “When he talks about all the work he does for people who are immigrants, for people with disabilities — which are two communities that I really do believe that he cares about — it is outside of his worldview that there could be trans immigrants, that there could be trans people with disabilities, that there could be pregnant people seeking abortion services or birth control who occupy those identities and whose needs might be even more acute and whose access might be even more limited,” she said.
Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act was “groundbreaking” because it recognizes how identities overlap and “protects against intersectional discrimination,” explained Easter of NWLC. “Rolling back these protections in the middle of a global pandemic that is exacerbating systemic racism and health disparities and killing Black and Brown folks at alarming rates is unconscionable.”
The long history of health care providers turning away LGBTQ patients has included death by negligence, as in the case of Black trans woman Tyra Hunter and her death after a car accident in 1995. Roger’s regulatory encouragement could have a chilling effect on their already fraught attempts to access health care.
He went so far as justifying his so-called conscience rule by citing Evan Minton’s then-pending lawsuit against the Catholic hospital that had abruptly canceled one of his gender-affirming procedures. The ACLU later won an appeal, but the hospital chain has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in. “The fact that the Trump administration singled me out… truly knocked me down for about nine months,” Minton testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in February 2020. As for abortion patients having complications? Ambulance drivers can refuse to complete an emergency transport to the hospital, and employers who make them finish the trip could face consequences under the conscience rule, HHS counsel acknowledged in the Southern District of New York case.
Should Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden prevail on November 3, Roger Severino will be out of a job come January 20, 2021, unless he tries to burrow into Washington’s bureaucracy in another role as a career civil servant. Inauguration Day will again swing open the door to thousands of political appointees. The Biden administration could immediately withdraw the Section 1557 and conscience rules that LGBTQ advocates have called licenses to discriminate, long before appointing Roger’s replacement. If Trump and Severino remain in office, a Democratic-controlled House or Senate could finally choose to grill him in a committee hearing, à la Scott Lloyd, the former HHS political appointee who denied abortion care to pregnant migrant teens and, in some cases, tracked their menstrual cycles.
Carrie will lose some measure of power if Republicans lose control of the Senate. As minority leader, Mitch McConnell wouldn’t be able to rubber-stamp conservative judges, even if Trump remains in the White House, but he could try to block liberal ones. Democrats leading the White House and Senate could counter some of the damage to the judiciary, particularly if they ax the strategic hiccup known as the filibuster and potentially expand the Supreme Court. Biden judicial nominations would presumably affirm LGBTQ and reproductive rights. Despite Biden’s lackluster record on abortion, he now supports eliminating the Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976 to prohibit federal funding for abortions, making it harder for generations of people with low incomes and people of color to access such care.
A Senate Democratic majority would also have the power to investigate operators like Carrie Severino. Federal tax law exempts JCN and other 501(c)(4) “social welfare” political nonprofits from disclosing their donors to the public, earning them the title of “dark money” groups. At Barrett’s nomination hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s dark money presentation listed Carrie alongside Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, which functions as a conservative honor roll Trump’s judicial nominees must make to reach the federal bench. Leo “effectively controls” JCN, according to a Daily Beast profile that illustrates the complex financial web behind the conservative court movement.
“JCN and Severino provide a front for the special interests using a web of anonymously funded groups to influence — even capture — our courts,” Whitehouse said in an email. “Congress should use its full oversight powers to get to the bottom of this scheme.”
But by January 2021, Carrie and Roger Severino will have executed much of their religious liberty agenda. Election Day will determine whether they get another four years under Trump to continue largely unchecked. Some of the damage can be undone at the regulatory level, but it will take time. The damage to the judiciary is already poised to far outlast a Trump administration, and so is their personal and political union.