Former anti-abortion lobbyist testifies to House committee about ‘stealth missionaries’ at Supreme Court

Former anti-abortion activist Robert Schenck testifies to the House Judiciary Committee on 8 December about Supreme Court ethics issues. (House Judiciary Committee)
Former anti-abortion activist Robert Schenck testifies to the House Judiciary Committee on 8 December about Supreme Court ethics issues. (House Judiciary Committee)

An Evangelical minister and former longtime anti-abortion activist told members of Congress that he helped recruit wealthy conservative donors to serve as “stealth missionaries” at the US Supreme Court, where they developed friendships with conservative justices that aligned with the group’s “social and religious” views.

The “overarching” goal of Robert Schenck’s “Operation Higher Court” sought to “gain insight into the conservative justices’ thinking and to shore up their resolve to render solid, unapologetic opinions,” he told the House Judiciary Committee in sworn testimony on 8 December.

Mr Schenck, who has recently spoken out against a religious right-wing political movement he spent years lobbying alongside, testified to the committee that his group suggested tactics like meeting with justices for meals at their homes and at private clubs to build relationships and advance their perceived common objectives.

His testimony follows Mr Schenck’s interviews with The New York Times and his letter to Chief Justice John Roberts suggesting that he learned the outcome of a landmark 2014 case – a victory for Christian conversative groups – several weeks before it was publicly announced.

Legal counsel for the nation’s high court and Justice Samuel Alito, who was accused of potentially leaking the decision, have adamantly denied the claims.

Politico and Rolling Stone have also reported Mr Schenck’s alleged interactions with the court.

“I believe we pushed the boundaries of Christian ethics and compromised the high court’s promise to administer equal justice,” Mr Schenck told the committee.

“I humbly apologise to all I failed in this regard,” he said. “Most of all I beg the pardon of the folks I enlisted to do work that was not always transparently honest … I’m here today in the interest of truth telling.”

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Mr Schenck was subpoenaed to testify at a hearing organised by House Democrats intended to discuss ways to strengthen ethics obligations on the high court, which, unlike other parts of the nation’s judiciary, is not bound by codes of conduct.

In his opening statement, Democratic committee chair Jerrold Nadler said that “Supreme Court justices cannot effectively police” their own conduct and must be held accountable through legislation that establishes guidelines, including disclosure requirements to prohibit “overtures from those seeking to influence the court with little to no transparency.”

“I sincerely hope we can all work together to pass legislation that would restore faith in the nation’s highest court,” he said.

“When people buy this level of access, it creates among the American people the powerful impression that they are buying influence,” according to committee witness Donald Sherman, senior vice president and counsel at nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“That in turn feeds into the crises of confidence and legitimacy that threaten the very foundations of the judiciary,” he said.

Republican members of the committee lambasted Democratic officials and sought to undermine Mr Schenck’s credibility and testimony as “hearsay” that does not hold up to scrutiny.

US Rep Jim Jordan said Mr Schenck’s testimony amounted to “second-hand hearsay from a witness who for 18 years took money from pro-life donors.”

The Independent has requested comment from a spokesperson for the Supreme Court.

According to The New York Times, Mr Schenck learned the outcome of a major contraception case, Burwell v Hobby Lobby, after wealthy donors close to his organisation dined with Justice Alito. A ruling in that 2014 case was not publicly revealed until three weeks later.

Mr Schenck said that he relied on his advanced knowledge of the ruling to prepare public relations materials and to inform the president of Hobby Lobby, the craft store at the centre of the case.

In his written testimony to the committee, Mr Schenck disclosed a previously unreported detail of the alleged Hobby Lobby leak, claiming that he received an email from Gayle Wright, who had allegedly dined with Justice Alito.

“I sent your email about hobby lobby case to Sam,” an apparent reference to Justice Alito, according to an email shared by Mr Schenck. “He sent me an email back saying he appreciated your comments very much. How about that?”

Justice Alito authored both the Hobby Lobby case as well as Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, another landmark case that revoked a constitutional right to abortion care and overturned key rulings in Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey.

That decision was leaked and published by Politico more than one month before the ruling was issued.

Mr Schenck’s allegations and the Dobbs leak also came as the court faced mounting scrutiny over the efforts of Virginia “Ginni” Thomas – wife of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas – to subvert the outcome of the 2020 presidential election by amplifying conspiracy theories and messaging state lawmakers in an apparent attempt to reject Mr Trump’s loss.

Justice Clarence Thomas also faced criticism for his refusal to recuse himself from litigation related to that issue.

Mark Paoletta, a lawyer who has represented Ms Thomas in her communications with the House select committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol fuelled by false election claims, also testified to the committee.

He accused Democratic members of the committee of “smearing the court to encourage the public to question its legitimacy” and waging a “political assault” after a series of rulings opposed by Democratic officials.

In his written testimony, Mr Schenck alleged that his “missionaries” also sought out Justice Thomas, who Mr Schenk claims “commended” him for his lobbying efforts.

“Keep up the work you’re doing,” Mr Schenck accused him of saying. “It’s making a difference.”