Senate Chairs

Published — January 5, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Patrick Leahy — Senate Judiciary Committee

Guardian of the Courts and Batman Fanatic


Longtime liberal stalwart Patrick Leahy of Vermont will continue to be a crucial figure in shaping the future path of the Supreme Court as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel has sway over judicial nominations to any federal court, as well as oversight responsibilities for the agencies at the center of the nation’s anti-terror battle: the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Democrat Leahy, now 70, first won his Senate seat way back in 1974. He’s been re-elected six times since, and in doing so has become Vermont’s longest-serving senator. He was most recently re-elected this past November, with 64 percent of the vote. Although known best for his work on the Judiciary committee, Leahy is also an influential member of Agriculture committee, which he once chaired, and the Appropriations committee.

In his role as Judiciary chair, which he held from 2001-2003 and again since 2007, Leahy has been at the center of many polarizing national debates. Issues such as abortion, gun control, and partisan efforts to approve or block judicial nominees are often at the top of the panel’s agenda. Leahy was critical of Republicans for holding up President Clinton’s judicial nominees throughout the 1990s, but then himself held up nominees from George W. Bush, including a filibuster against 10 appeals court nominees. In 2005 he led Democratic questioning of Supreme Court nominees John Roberts — whom he voted for — and Samuel Alito — whom he voted against. Leahy has participated in confirmation hearings for every current Supreme Court Justice.

Leahy has also played a crucial role in shaping post-September 11 policies on fighting terror. He was the top Democrat working with the Bush administration to craft the USA PATRIOT Act, which broadened the tools available to the government for combating terrorism, and he helped torpedo a proposal that would have let the government deport immigrants suspected of terrorism without presenting evidence against them. Leahy gained the spotlight late in the presidency of George W. Bush with his sharp questioning of attorneys general Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques against detainees. He has also led investigations into the Bush administration’s use of warrantless wiretapping and the firings of several U.S. attorneys for what critics say were political purposes.

In addition to his committee work, Leahy has been active in opposing the use of land mines, and in 1992 wrote a landmark law banning the use of anti-personnel mines. He voted against authorizing the Iraq War in 2002 and is co-chair of the Senate’s National Guard caucus.

Leahy is a noted Batman fan, having a cameo in 1997’s Batman and Robin, and appearing in a brief speaking role in 2008’s The Dark Knight. He was also an early user of the Internet, becoming the second senator to set up a website and the first to establish a blog. A noted fan of gadgets, Leahy serves as co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus.

Despite his lengthy record, Leahy may be best known for being cursed out by Vice President Dick Cheney on the Senate floor in 2004. Six years later, Cheney would say, “That’s sort of the best thing I ever did.”

A spokesman for Leahy declined to comment on the story in general but noted that the former-staffers-turned-lobbyists listed in this story are among hundreds of former aides and said that any suggestion about their influence would be “unfair to them and to the senator.”

Top PAC Contributors

  • Comcast Corp., the cable television giant — at least $30,000
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a union representing about 725,000 workers in the United States and Canada — at least $30,000
  • National Beer Wholesalers Association, a trade association of more than 2,500 independent beer distributors — at least $30,000
  • General Dynamics Corp., a major defense contractor — at least $29,000
  • American Association for Justice, the trade association formally known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America — at least $28,000
  • PACs gave at least $1.86 million to Leahy’s campaign account and his Green Mountain leadership PAC

Revolving Door

  • Debra Barrett is vice president of government relations with Teva Pharmaceuticals and a former aide to Leahy. The PAC for Teva Pharmaceuticals has donated at least $12,500 to Leahy in the past four years
  • Robyn Lippert, a former Leahy staffer, lobbies on behalf of UnitedHealth Group
  • Karen Marangi was counsel for Leahy and now lobbies for the Raben Group, where her clients include Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and First Focus
  • Kristina M. Pisanelli was a legislative aide for Leahy, dealing with health and education issues, and now lobbies for Crowell & Moring on behalf of clients including Hofstra University and 1-800-CONTACTS, a mail-order contact lens company


  • Between 2008 and 2010, Leahy obtained more than $380 million in earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense
  • In 2010 Leahy helped secure over $105 million in earmarks, including $3.2 million for General Dynamics to develop a lightweight .50 caliber machine gun
  • That same year, Leahy joined with three Republican colleagues to secure $1.175 million for a “National Advocacy Center State and Local Prosecutors Training Program” on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Virginia
  • In 2008 he joined the rest of his delegation in helping Vermont-based sock company Darn Tough receive a $1.6 million earmark to supply merino wool boot socks to the Marines

Read more in Money and Democracy

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