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Former evangelical activist says he 'pushed the boundaries' in Supreme Court dealings

Rev. Rob Schenck speaks during press conference in front of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2019. Schenck testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee Dec. 8, 2022 saying that he knew of a leak out of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Rev. Rob Schenck speaks during press conference in front of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2019. Schenck testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee Dec. 8, 2022 saying that he knew of a leak out of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

Right-wing Christian activists sought to work their way into the social circles of conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court justices — offering prayers, meals, "warm personal greetings," and occasionally even travel — in an effort to "embolden" the justices to advance their policy agenda, the former leader of an evangelical nonprofit told members of Congress on Thursday.

"Throughout this ordeal, I've had to look deeply at what my cohorts and I did at the Supreme Court," Rev. Rob Schenck testified during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. "I believe we pushed the boundaries of Christian ethics and compromised the high court's promise to administer equal justice."

'Stealth missionaries'

Schenck, who until 2018 led a group known then as Faith and Action, now describes himself as a "dissenting evangelical." He said he recruited and trained "stealth missionaries" for a project called Operation High Court.

They worked to bolster the justices' conservative views on issues including abortion and same-sex marriage, he said, sometimes achieving a rare level of access and intimacy with the judges.

"In one instance, Justice [Clarence] Thomas commended me, saying something like, 'Keep up what you're doing; it's making a difference,' " Schenck told the committee.

Descriptions of a leak from several years ago

Soon after the unprecedented leak in May of the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, Schenck came forward with his own story of a possible leak years earlier, which he described in a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts in June and in interviews with the New York Times.

Schenck said that in 2014, a donor to his organization had dined at the home of Justice Samuel Alito. Afterward, Schenck said, the donor told him she'd learned there that the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a case before the court that centered on religious liberty, would be favorable to conservatives.

Schenck said the donor shared that information with him weeks before the decision was released to the public, and he used it to prepare a response in advance. Alito wrote the majority opinion in both that case and the Dobbs decision on abortion this summer.

Questions from Republicans

Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, including ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio, expressed skepticism about Schenck's story, which Jordan described as "8-year-old second-hand hearsay."

Jordan noted that both the donor, Gayle Wright, and Justice Alito have denied being involved in leaking the information, and questioned Schenck's motives for coming forward with the story.

In recent years, Schenck has said publicly that his political views have changed significantly and that he now opposes what he calls "extreme" restrictions on abortion.

A call for ethics reform

The Dobbs leak has prompted rampant speculation about who might have been responsible. Activists on each side of the abortion issue have pointed fingers at those on the other.

In the aftermath of both the leak and Schenck's allegations, Democratic House leaders are hoping to gain insight into relationships between conservative activists and the courts. Some watchdog groups would like to see the court adopt an ethics code for the justices.

"While this breach of trust was undoubtedly a serious incident, made even more troubling in light of the leak of the Dobbs opinion earlier this year, it should not be the key takeaway from Rev. Schenck's story," Chairman Jerry Nadler told his committee. "The moral of the story is this — Supreme Court justices can't effectively self-police their own ethics. We shouldn't expect them to."

Democrats have proposed legislation that would impose a code of ethics on the justices, but so far have been unable to pass it. Such proposals likely would face an even more uphill battle in the newly divided Congress.

Advocates for reform argue the justices should be subject to disclosure rules for gifts and clear criteria for recusing themselves from cases that could affect their family members or close associates.

In addition to whatever action Congress might take, Justice Roberts also has ordered an internal investigation into the source of the Dobbs leak in. It's unclear when that probe will be completed or if the results will be made public.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 8, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In an earlier version of this story, we misspelled Rev. Rob Schenck's last name.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.