Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito allegedly told private dinner companions how the high court would rule in the landmark 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, according to a bombshell report in The New York Times.
The dinner companions, who were wealthy donors to an evangelical Christian nonprofit, reportedly tipped off the minister who led the nonprofit, Rev. Rob Schenck, who told the Times he later informed the CEO of Hobby Lobby.
Schenck also used the information “undetectably” to assist “in preparing for the inevitable announcement” of the court’s decision, which he wrote in a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts earlier this year which was obtained and published by the Times.
The minister, whose beliefs have changed in recent years, provided “thousands” of emails and other records to the Times showing how he campaigned for decades to lay the legal groundwork for the Supreme Court to eventually overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
The 2014 contraception case prompted the court to decide whether requiring a company to provide contraception as part of its health coverage violated religious freedom protections. Hobby Lobby’s conservative Christian owners said they were opposed to contraception use. The result was a victory for the craft store chain and religious conservatives ― much like the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, rolling back abortion rights for millions of people.
Alito denies tipping the court’s hand eight years ago, the Times reported.
But the accusation comes at a contentious moment where swaths of the nation have already begun questioning the court’s legitimacy and its station above politics.
Alito himself weighed in on that criticism in September when he said that “saying or implying that the court is becoming an illegitimate institution or questioning our integrity crosses an important line.” Last week, he walked onstage to thunderous applause from conservatives gathered at a 40th anniversary gala for the Federalist Society, which has worked to place right-wing justices on the Supreme Court.
Schenck turned whistleblower this year after the Supreme Court’s monumental decision against abortion rights was leaked in draft form to Politico, sparking nationwide protests. Roberts said the court was investigating that leak, but no further developments have been shared with the public.
In his letter to the chief justice, Schenck wrote, “Considering there may be a severe penalty to be paid by whoever is responsible for the initial leak of the recent draft opinion, I thought this previous incident might bear some consideration by you and others involved in the process.”
He added: “Of course, I would be happy to fully cooperate should you find any value in other details surrounding what I have transmitted here.”
Schenck signed the letter, “Yours in the interest of truth and fairness.”
He told The New York Times he has not received any response.
Schenck has long been a controversial figure. He was arrested in 1992 for helping to thrust a human fetus in a clear plastic container at Bill Clinton, then a presidential contender, while he was out in New York City.
The minister no longer subscribes to hard-right views on reproductive rights, though. In 2019 he penned an editorial for the Times explaining himself, saying that his experiences speaking with poor and struggling parents in Alabama jails helped shift his perspective.
“I can no longer pretend that telling poor pregnant women they have just one option — give birth and try your luck raising a child, even though the odds are stacked against you — is ‘pro-life’ in any meaningful sense,” he wrote. The religious right’s obsession with gun rights also alienated him.
While the Hobby Lobby leak has not been previously reported, parts of Schenck’s anti-abortion campaign, which he called “Operation Higher Court,” have already been published in outlets such as Politico and Rolling Stone.
Schenck set up his campaign operations in a building right by the Supreme Court. He told Politico that between 1995 and 2018, he arranged to fly about 20 couples to socialize with Alito and his fellow ultraconservatives on the bench: Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
As he told the Times, the goal was to strengthen the conservative justices’ resolve to put out hardline opinions.