Schenck’s latest claims fuel a heated debate about outside influences on the court and whether the judges’ family and social connections drive the court’s agenda and its increasingly conservative bent.
The High Court has often been seen as immune to the lobbying that is commonplace in Congress, the White House and executive agencies, but some of the recent revelations indicate that activists have sought to steer some judges in a way that goes beyond the usual advocacy. in legal briefs and pleadings.
For nearly two decades, Schenck led Faith and Action, now known as Faith & Liberty, which he described as an activist group aiming to penetrate the walls of the Supreme Court and persuade justices to be bolder in their denominational conservatism. He broke sharply with the religious right over the past decade over what he saw as his extreme tactics and unwillingness to support restrictions on gun ownership.
Schenck said Judge Samuel Alito’s 79-page opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization included language and framing that Schenck and other anti-abortion activists had touted for years in their efforts to stoke sentiment to ban abortion in the United States
“It was a controversy on our side of the movement, which made me jump, took my breath away,” the reverend said. “He was using phrases we made up as bumper sticker slogans in a Supreme Court decision. It was breathtaking for me.
POLITICO reported earlier this month that the Supreme Court-focused campaign Schenck mounted, known as “Operation High Court,” sought to use social interactions with large numbers of religiously conservative couples to persuade judges to be more vocal in defending and promoting conservative religious views. and values in their opinions.
The couples built relationships with the judges through dinners at private homes, vacation getaways and fancy restaurants and subtly suggested the judges were the country’s last line of defense against rising liberalism, Schenck said. , which pointed to Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia as the most frequent targets of Faith and Action overtures.
“We coined a phrase that we called at the time the ministry of emboldening. And what we meant by that was to strengthen sympathetic judges to use stronger language,” the former ordained Assemblies of God minister said in the podcast. « We were there to bolster their courage. »
A spokesperson for the court did not respond to requests for comment on Schenck’s interactions with judges, the low-key influence campaign he described or his claims about the broader effort affecting the work of the court.
Schenck described the effort to seize opportunities to talk, pray and dine with the judges as a rather traditional, if unusually focused, lobbying campaign in Washington.
“You know, Washington is built on relationships. So you build relationships and Supreme Court justices have a very close constellation of people that they keep company with,” he said. « I set out to meet with these people and build relationships with them and put in place arrangements where there were reciprocal debts owed. And one of the ways to pay a debt to Washington is to provide access – you open doors to people who are in some cases, like with the court, who are otherwise inscrutable. I took advantage of that. It took a long time to do that. At least a decade.
Schenck said the effort was rather haphazard at first, but has become more organized.
« The first decade I was on the court was mostly serendipitous. The second decade was mostly gaining from the investment. And so I was able to speak with the judges, visit them often in their cabinet,” he said, later clarifying that he didn’t often see the justices in their offices, but mostly at various functions, including meetings elsewhere in the Supreme Court, the Capitol and around Washington.
Schenck said the group and its emissaries tried to be subtle in their approach to avoid alienating the judges or their aides.
« We were careful, » he said. “You had to respect the limits with the judges always and even in your language. So, for example, it would be a big no-no to pray something like, “Lord, we pray that same-sex marriage will never be legalized in America. That would be too direct. It would be anything from rude to a technical violation of their quasi-ethical rules.
Instead, Schenck said, he or others enlisted by the group would offer a prayer along the lines of, « Lord, we thank you that justice so-and-so is in the pew when we must uphold the sanctity of marriage and family ». He said it was ‘coded language’ – meaning the court would have to block same-sex marriage and other measures he considered part of what he considered at the time as the « homosexual agenda ».
Still, some judges sometimes seemed uncomfortable with the band’s overt references to social issues.
“We would have a bit of a step back,” Schenck said on the podcast. “Even on occasion, a judge may uncomfortably squirm, turn and leave a small circle that started out as a talking circle and turned into a prayer circle. So we pushed the limits. I certainly did.
While Faith and Action’s parallel efforts to urge members of Congress to be more outspoken supporters of social conservatism were more overt, the group’s work with judges was more secretive. Yet such prayer sessions were sometimes mentioned in newsletters and similar publications.
And last month, Rolling Stone reported what appeared to be an audio recording outside of court at the time of the recent abortion ruling. The recording of Peggy Nienaber, who worked with Schenck at Faith and Action and is now vice president of Faith and Freedom, captured her appearing to boast about holding court prayer sessions with judges. She later backed off from her apparent comments, insisting she hadn’t attended such sessions in recent years.
Schenck, who is now president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, criticized the court’s ethical rules as lax and said he hoped his revelations about previously opaque efforts to influence judges would prompt reforms either by Congress, or by the court itself.
« I think things have to change in court, » he said. « I’m not the best messenger for this and I realize that, but someone has to deliver this message. »