Evangelical minister who sought to influence Supreme Court comes under withering criticism

A conservative evangelical minister testifying before a House committee Thursday came under fierce personal attacks from Republican members of Congress angry that he has accused U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito of leaking news of a 2014 decision ahead of time.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., called the Rev. Rob Schenck “a pathetic grifter” and declined to even ask him any questions about his claims, saying it would be “pointless.”

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., dismissed Schenck’s claims as “gossip” and “deceit.”

“I have to tell you, it is one of the most pernicious performances I have seen publicly in a long time,” Biggs said during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

Conservative attorney Mark Paoletta, a former White House budget office lawyer under former President Trump, testified as a Republican witness and called Schenck “con man” with “zero credibility.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, waged a withering cross-examination of Schenck about his credibility, arguing that in his 2018 book “Costly Grace” the minister told a story that was not accurate.

The Rev. Robert Schenck testifies during a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing looking into allegations that he got advance word of the outcome of a major 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case.
The Rev. Robert Schenck testifies during a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing looking into allegations that he got advance word of the outcome of a major 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Schenck wrote in his book that former Chief Justice William Rehnquist referred to Schenck’s brother Paul Schenck as "reverend" during the opening moments of oral arguments in a 1996 case. Robert Schenck, in his telling, said this detail was an important reference that would enable the brothers to “cast the conflict as a religious liberty case.”

But Jordan showed the transcript of the arguments, which demonstrated that Rehnquist did not use the term “reverend.” He also played the audio, to the same effect. Schenck looked nonplussed and embarrassed. The term “reverend” was included in the initial court filing of the case, and Schenck told Yahoo News that he and his brother had celebrated that fact, though not at the moment he described in the book.

“You got the key detail wrong . . . and we're supposed to believe you today? We're supposed to take your word over Justice Alito's name?” Jordan said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, questions the Rev. Robert Schenck about allegations that Schenck received advance knowledge of a major 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, questions the Rev. Robert Schenck about allegations that Schenck received advance knowledge of a major 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., was taken aback. He told Schenck that in 16 years in Congress “never have I witnessed the kind of savage attack that has been levied against you today.”

What prompted all this?

Schenck told the New York Times this fall that in 2014, Justice Alito had leaked news of an impending decision in a case involving Hobby Lobby, a national retail chain owned by conservative Christians who refused to comply with a federal health care law that required businesses to provide employees access to birth control.

Furthermore, Schenck said, he had conducted a covert effort for over a decade in which he sought to influence the conservative justices. Schenck said he did this through his own relationships with justices, as well as through wealthy conservative donors whom he enlisted to cozy up to the justices.

“When I arrived at the Supreme Court in the late 1990s, at least my fellow conservatives and I had convinced ourselves that the conservative members of the court were beleaguered, they were disfavored, they were routinely maligned and insulted in the public arena and we thought they needed shoring up,” Schenck said Thursday.

The Rev. Robert Schenck told the New York Times this fall that in 2014, Justice Samuel Alito had leaked news of an impending decision in a case involving Hobby Lobby.
The Rev. Robert Schenck told the New York Times this fall that in 2014, Justice Samuel Alito had leaked news of an impending decision in a case involving Hobby Lobby. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“We wanted to create a circle of people around them that would encourage them, applaud them, literally thank God for them and assure them of prayerful support, and by being present, indicate to them that there were many, many Americans who were behind them and hoped that they would render strong, unapologetic, unequivocal opinions that would support the positions important to us,” he told the committee.

The 2014 leak, Schenk said, came from a dinner shared by a wealthy Ohio couple, Donald and Gayle Wright, with Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann. Gayle Wright then relayed news to Schenck, he said, that Alito told her of the impending decision and that he had written the majority opinion.

Alito has denied the story. So has Gayle Wright. Her husband is now deceased. The Supreme Court itself has dismissed criticism of Alito’s relationship with the Wrights.

Schenck maintained on Thursday that he was sure that his version of events was accurate. But Jordan’s cross-examination may have poked holes in his credibility.

But for all that, the purported purpose of the hearing was to discuss whether the Supreme Court needs to come under a standard of ethics and disclosure rules that would make it harder for the justices to have conflicts of interest or even the appearance of such.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito
Associate Justice Samuel Alito (Erin Schaff/Pool via Reuters)

Donald K. Sherman, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), noted that a year ago a Wall Street Journal report revealed that “more than 130 federal judges have violated U.S. law and judicial ethics by overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock.”

Sherman said the judicial system suffers from a “systemic inability to track judges’ financial conflicts of interest, a disastrous failure that had resulted in more than one hundred federal judges, and several Supreme Court Justices, presiding over cases in which they had a personal financial interest in one of the parties.”

Sherman also pointed to the actions of Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist, who was involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to overturn the 2020 election and throw out the votes of millions of Americans in order to keep former President Trump in power.

Thomas did not recuse himself from multiple cases involving the 2020 election and the effort to overturn the results.

Virginia
Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court is at a point of crisis due to multiple factors. Republican lawmakers have in recent years defied democratic norms to deny Democrats nominations to the court. The GOP refused to even hold nomination hearings for Merrick Garland in 2016 after conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died. He was replaced by Trump with conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017.

Republicans then threw out the logic they had used to justify the obstruction of Garland to install conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett as a replacement for liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The GOP has gained a 6-3 conservative majority as a result, and liberals have grown increasingly disheartened by the court’s rulings in cases involving corporate interests, voting rights and other issues, in addition to the momentous issue of abortion.

Conservatives, meanwhile, point the finger back at Democrats for the way that Justice Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct during his nomination process, and say that while it began with credible accusations from one woman, it escalated out of control into a smear campaign that was aided and abetted by the press.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Pool via AP)

After the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion this past summer in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, threats of violence have been made against the conservative justices, and protests have been held outside their homes.

A California man was arrested near Kavanaugh’s home in June, carrying a pistol, ammunition and a knife, and federal search warrants revealed that he had told others he planned to kill at least one justice and as many as three.

All of these political cross-pressures led to the tense hearing Thursday.

But there is also a lack of ethics guidelines that govern the court, experts say, and that is also part of the reason that public confidence in the court is only at about 25%, a historic low.

“To be sure, a major reason for the dramatic drop in confidence relates to the substance of the Court’s decisions,” wrote Glenn Fine, a former inspector general at both the Justice Department and the Defense Department. “But whatever one thinks about the merits of these decisions, the Court and the judiciary lack effective oversight. In addition, the Court has exempted itself from ethical rules that apply to other federal judges. Both shortcomings should be changed.”

U.S. Supreme Court justices pose for their group portrait at the Supreme Court in 2022. Seated, from left: Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Samuel A. Alito and Elena Kagan. Standing, from left: Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
U.S. Supreme Court justices pose for their group portrait at the Supreme Court in 2022. Seated, from left: Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Samuel A. Alito and Elena Kagan. Standing, from left: Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“The Court needs to assure the public that it is governed by ethical rules and that each justice is not voluntarily judging his or her own compliance with ethical requirements. Supreme Court justices are not above the law or ethical rules. The Court’s failure to adopt an ethical code and its resistance to oversight risk further decline in public trust and confidence,” Fine wrote.

There was at least some bipartisan support for a piece of legislation like the bill that Johnson, the Georgia Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has co-sponsored with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

“I am supportive of bipartisan efforts to have some kind of ethics construct on the Supreme Court . . . What? Because we put a black robe on somebody and give them a lifetime appointment all of a sudden when they fail to enact their own ethics rules, we just allow that to occur?” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

“And to my friends on the right, if you can buy off Supreme Court justices, the left is definitely going to be way better at that than we are,” he added.