A high-profile leak has heightened questions around the Supreme Court During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, the Rev. Rob Schenck said he knew the outcome of a pivotal religious freedom decision weeks before the Supreme Court released it in 2014.

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

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We still don't know exactly what led to the leak earlier this year of the Supreme Court's landmark decision overturning decades of abortion rights precedent. But a former anti-abortion rights activist suggests that leak may be part of a much longer history at the high court, a history involving cozy relationships between conservative activists and justices. The Reverend Rob Schenck described that relationship today in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

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ROB SCHENCK: Throughout this ordeal, I've had to look deeply at what my cohorts and I did at the Supreme Court. I believe we pushed the boundaries of Christian ethics and compromised the High Court's promise to administer equal justice.

KELLY: NPR's Sarah McCammon is keeping track of that hearing. She's here now. Hey, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. OK. So why is the committee holding this hearing about leaks on the Supreme Court and why today?

MCCAMMON: Well, you know, there are a lot of questions swirling around about the court's independence and possible outside influence on the court, especially since that leak of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade this year. Now, in response to that leak, this former anti-abortion activist, Rob Schenck, came forward in a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts and interviews with The New York Times. He revealed that back in 2014, when he was leading an evangelical nonprofit, he was told weeks in advance that the decision in the case known as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby would be favorable to conservatives. Now, he says he heard that from a donor named Gail Wright, who had dined at the home of Justice Samuel Alito. In this hearing today, ranking member Jim Jordan, who's a Republican from Ohio, questioned Schenck about that story.

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JIM JORDAN: Mr. Schenck, did Gale Wright really tell you that?

SCHENCK: Yes.

JORDAN: Justice Alito said he didn't tell her. She said she didn't tell him. But you're sure she told you?

SCHENCK: Absolutely.

MCCAMMON: And Jordan described Schenck's story as eight-year-old secondhand hearsay and suggested it's part of an effort by Democrats to undermine conservative justices. Schenck says he's coming forward in the interest of truth telling. He said publicly in recent years he's had a change of heart and now opposes what he calls extreme abortion restrictions.

KELLY: Well, and I'm trying to keep track. Did we actually learn more today about what did or did not happen back in 2014?

MCCAMMON: So Schenck painted this picture of an intimate spiritual connection that some of these right-wing Christian activists carefully cultivated with the judges. Schenck says he recruited and trained people that he describes as stealth missionaries in an effort to influence the judges and bolster their conservative leanings. He says it seemed to work, too.

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SCHENCK: In one instance, Justice Thomas commended me, saying something like, keep up what you're doing. It's making a difference.

MCCAMMON: And Schenck says that closeness was sustained through prayer meetings and other gatherings, sometimes dinners and occasionally even trips with these activists and donors.

KELLY: Sarah, big picture, the questions here are about influence on the Supreme Court. Where does that part of the story go?

MCCAMMON: Well, some watchdog groups want Congress to require the court to adopt an ethics code for the judges. Here's House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler.

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JERRY NADLER: The moral of the story is this. Supreme Court justices cannot effectively self-police their own ethics, and we shouldn't expect them to.

MCCAMMON: Democrats want justices to have to disclose gifts and adopt standards for recusing themselves from certain cases. That legislation, though, hasn't gotten very far and would likely face a tougher battle in the next Congress.

KELLY: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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