Judge Cannon's secret right-wing getaway: Why didn't we know about this?

Federal judge in Trump's documents trial didn't tell us about those right-wing conferences at a Montana resort

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published May 7, 2024 9:11AM (EDT)

Judge Aileen Cannon and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/USDC for the Southern District of Florida)
Judge Aileen Cannon and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/USDC for the Southern District of Florida)

Let me ask you a question: How many all-expenses-paid vacations at luxury hunting and fishing lodges have you enjoyed over the last few years? I’m not talking about a motel in the boonies of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or a drafty log cabin on a lake in Maine or Minnesota. We’re talking about a luxury resort on 1,200 acres alongside the Yellowstone River just outside Yellowstone National Park. We’re talking about a lodge featuring rooms with stone fireplaces that go for upwards of $1,000 a night in high season, meals that include “house-cured meats from local ranches, garden-fresh produce from nearby farms, and, of course plenty of Northwest craft beers and spirits,” as the resort’s website describes the offerings.

It's called the Sage Lodge in Pray, Montana, and it’s where George Mason University sends gaggles of federal judges for a week-long “colloquium” every year or so. Paid for by the Law and Economics Center at the Antonin Scalia Law School, the “colloquium” held at the Sage Lodge in 2021, for example, featured lectures on such subjects as “Woke Law!” – and yes, the exclamation point is part of the lecture topic — by one Todd J. Zywicki, who is George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law at the Antonin Scalia Law School and a senior fellow at the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives of the Cato Institute. Another juicy topic covered at the Sage Lodge in 2021 was “Unprofitable Education: Student Loans, Higher Education Costs, and the Regulatory State,” also featuring a lecture by Zywicki, a topic that rings what we might call a rather different bell after the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program last year.

The Antonin Scalia Law School, by the way, was established and largely funded by the efforts of Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who helped put together $30 million from conservative donors, including Leo himself, to rename the law school after the late legendary right-wing justice, who it will be remembered died of a heart attack in 2016 at another luxury hunting lodge, that one in Texas, while on a trip paid for by wealthy conservative “friends of the court,” I guess we could call them. The other major donor to the Scalia Law School was the Charles Koch Foundation, which threw in a handy $10 million.

Why are we talking about luxury hunting lodges and right-wing “colloquiums” for judges? Because one of our favorite federal judges, Aileen Cannon of Florida, currently presiding over the case against Donald Trump over the secret documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago, was a guest at that same 2021 “colloquium” at the Sage Lodge, and the one held in 2022 as well. The thing is, Cannon failed to file the form known as a Privately Funded Seminar Disclosure Report, which lists whoever paid for the judge to attend the seminar, who the speakers were and what topics were discussed. The form is supposed to be posted on the website of every federal court within 30 days of the time a judge attending such an all-expenses-paid seminar. Cannon, however, somehow forgot to do so, so anyone who might be interested in learning who was paying for Cannon’s vacations and the nature of her judicial education would have been  out of luck.

So why do we suppose Judge Cannon was so shy about who’s paying for her luxury trips and what she might have learned there? Oh, I don’t know … might it be because she didn’t want anyone to know about her links to the Leonard Leo wing of legal theory? Could it have been that she didn’t want it known that she had taken money from an organization that was in large part funded by billionaires friendly to the man whose case she was presiding over?

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I mean, 10 grand or so in first-class air travel and luxury accommodations and bottomless trips to the luxo-resort’s “local produce” salad bar and steak pit might start to look like a bribe when you pay attention to what was actually being discussed between float trips down the Yellowstone and hikes through the mountains, don’t you think?

Wouldn’t you love to see the thank-you notes Cannon sent to Leonard Leo and his pals? I would. But until NPR called up Judge Cannon and asked her about her journeys out to the Montana luxury resort, nobody knew a thing about who had tried to curry favor with her. That was when she hurriedly filled out the forms and posted the disclosure she had actually been required to post within 30 days of returning from her trip.. So now we know what she was concealing, but we didn’t know where she had been or who she had been listening to when she first got the Trump case and made the rulings — later overturned by judges of the 11th Circuit — that many legal experts had said were ridiculously favorable to Trump.  

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Being a federal judge is a lifetime appointment. It’s almost impossible to get rid of a federal judge once they’re on the bench. But it’s not a right, it’s a privilege. Citizens should have the right to know who is attempting to influence judges and why. That’s why the Congress established federal reporting rules. 

Right-wingers like Mitch McConnell and Leonard Leo made no secret of their ambition to appoint as many conservatives as they could to the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Judges like Cannon sneak off to remote luxury lodges in Montana to listen to right-wing legal scholars spouting off on subjects that sound like topics at a CPAC convention, about  “woke” laws and the “regulatory state,” and they do that for a reason: so we won’t know who’s paying for their time and their attention and their fun.

Gee, is it possible that Leonard Leo and his pals think they might be getting a return on their investment?

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aileen Cannon Antonin Scalia Commentary Conservatives Donald Trump Federalist Society Judges Leonard Leo