The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Dec. 8 to investigate the religious right lobbying campaign that led to the allegation that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito leaked the outcome of his 2014 Hobby Lobby decision to its participants.
Rev. Rob Schenck, the former conservative evangelical leader who alleged that he learned the outcome of the Hobby Lobby decision from supporters who had dined with Alito, will testify, the committee announced on Dec. 5.
The committee’s announced hearing follows a back-and-forth between the two top committee Democrats overseeing the courts, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), and the court over the lobbying campaign and the court’s lack of a binding ethics code. The two lawmakers concluded that the court refused to answer their questions and threatened to provide the oversight that the court was not doing for itself.
“If the Court ... is not willing to undertake fact-finding inquiries into possible ethics violations, that leaves Congress as the only forum,” they wrote.
This provoked a coalition of more than 60 progressive groups, including Demand Justice, Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice and more, to send a letter urging Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Whitehouse to hold hearings on the lobbying campaign and call its leader, Schenck, to testify.
“This scandal is just the latest in a long line of ethical failures the Court itself refuses to deal with,” Brian Fallon, president of Demand Justice, a progressive judiciary group, said. “House Judiciary is right to move quickly to investigate, and Senate Democrats should plan to take up the mantle in the new year.”
Since Democrats lost control of the House in the November midterm elections, they only command the House Judiciary Committee gavel through the end of the year, when they will turn it over to Republicans. Democrats, however, will remain in control of the Senate Judiciary Committee after holding the chamber.
The Senate committee has yet to announce any hearings of its own. But its leaders have indicated that they will pursue oversight of the court.
“We will continue to pursue oversight, including oversight into these latest troubling allegations,” Whitehouse said in a Senate floor speech Wednesday night. “The people of the country deserve real answers from justices we trust to wield the power of the highest court in the country. We won’t give up until we get those answers. So, across the street over there, they had better get used to it.”
The lobbying campaign led by Schenck through his conservative evangelical group Faith & Action sought to harden the will of conservative justices to issue hardline decisions that would ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade. Justices Alito and Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Antonin Scalia all accepted food, lodging and other accommodations from participants in the pressure campaign who befriended them, Politico reported in July.
But the biggest bombshell came on Nov. 19 when The New York Times reported that Schenck, who has since renounced his conservative positions, wrote a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts in July alleging that Alito leaked the outcome of his decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell to two members of Schenck’s pressure campaign – Donald and Gail Wright – after Schenck asked them to learn it from the justice while dining at his house.
Schenck’s letter came as part of Roberts’ investigation into another leak, that of Alito’s full opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the national right to an abortion. Roberts has not announced any new information about his investigation, and Schenck’s letter only came to light through The New York Times’ reporting.
These allegations are not the sole ethics woes the court faces. Thomas has faced repeated criticism for his refusal to recuse himself from decisions related to the House Jan. 6 Committee despite his wife, Ginni Thomas’ involvement in the plot to overthrow the elected government of President Joe Biden. Thomas has twice voted to block the release of text messages and other documents to the committee from people his wife was in contact with.