Supreme Court responds to lawmakers over alleged Hobby Lobby leak

Legal counsel for the Supreme Court on Monday responded to an inquiry from Democratic lawmakers by reiterating Justice Samuel Alito’s denial of a report alleging that the outcome of a pending religious liberty case in 2014 was disclosed to Alito’s dinner guests.

The statement by the court’s lawyer, Ethan Torrey, comes after The New York Times’s revelation of the alleged breach prompted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) to press the Supreme Court over ethics concerns.

Alito, in a statement to the Times, said he and his wife had shared a “casual and purely social relationship” with conservative donors Gayle and Donald Wright, who are alleged to have prematurely learned the outcome of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby during a June 2014 dinner at the Alitos’ house. But the justice denied having revealed advanced details of the landmark 5-4 ruling he authored, which gave family-owned corporations a religious-based exemption from ObamaCare’s contraception mandate when the opinion was issued later that month.

“Justice Alito has said that neither he nor Mrs. Alito told the Wrights about the outcome of the decision in the Hobby Lobby case, or about the authorship of the opinion of the Court,” Torrey told the lawmakers in a two-page letter. He added that “there is nothing to suggest that Justice Alito’s actions violated ethics standards.”

“The Wrights owned a real estate business in Dayton, Ohio, and to our knowledge, they have never had a financial interest in a matter before the Court,” Torrey wrote. “In addition, the term ‘gift’ is defined to exclude social hospitality based on personal relationships as well as modest items, such as food and refreshments, offered as a matter of social hospitality.”

In a bombshell Nov. 19 investigation, The New York Times reported that the Rev. Rob Schenck, who formerly led an evangelical nonprofit, sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts in July indicating he learned the outcome of the Hobby Lobby case in 2014 from Gayle Wright after she dined with Alito and his wife. Wright has denied Schenck’s account.

In a Nov. 20 letter to the Supreme Court, Whitehouse and Johnson — who sit on the Senate and House Judiciary committees, respectively — pressed the chief justice for answers, asking Roberts if the court reevaluated any of its judicial ethics or gift rules in the wake of Schneck’s July letter detailing the allegations.

“Recent reporting by the New York Times that the orchestrators of this judicial lobbying campaign may have used their access to certain justices to secure confidential information about pending cases only deepens our concerns about the lack of adequate ethical and legal guardrails at the Court,” they wrote.

The allegation of back-channel communication between a sitting justice and wealthy conservative donors is just the latest in a string of developments to raise Supreme Court ethics and secrecy concerns.

The Times report this month comes after the leak in May of Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade marked one of the most stunning breaches of Supreme Court security in recent history.

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