‘Operation High Court’: Inside religious right’s efforts to wine and dine Supreme Court justices

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“We were repeating phrases like: ‘a genocide of his people.

Schenck said the goal was to create a support ecosystem for conservative judges, to make them more outspoken in their opinions.

The previously undisclosed Faith and Action initiative illustrates the extent to which some Supreme Court justices interacted with religious right advocates during a time when the court grappled with social issues such as abortion and gay rights. The calculated nature of Faith and Action’s efforts shows how outside actors can use expensive socials and dinner parties to penetrate the highly closed environment of the court.

Thomas and Alito did not respond to requests for comment through the Supreme Court. Efforts to reach the family of Scalia, who died in 2016, were unsuccessful.

Schenck’s organization Faith and Action became part of Liberty Counsel in 2018 and is now known as Faith and Liberty. Its vice president, Peggy Nienaber, was quoted earlier this week as praying with Supreme Court justices in a recording posted on YouTube and reported by Rolling Stone magazine. Schenck told the magazine he started the prayer sessions as a way to build relationships with conservative judges.

Mat Staver, Founder and President of Liberty Counsel, said, “I don’t know much about what Rob Schenck has done in the past. . . When he says he invited couples to drink and eat judges, I don’t know anything like that happened.

Schenck named a prominent evangelical couple – Don and Gayle Wright of Dayton, Ohio – as the main funders of his group, which established an office directly behind the Supreme Court building. Don Wright became wealthy through his furniture business and real estate company, owning homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Siesta Key, Florida.

Schenck said that in addition to making regular donations to Faith and Action, the Wrights have funded many expensive dinners with Thomas, Alito, Scalia and their wives in Washington, D.C. hotspots like the Capital Grille. Don Wright died in 2020.

Gayle Wright did not respond to a phone message left at her home in Ohio, seeking comment on the story. A request for comment from family-owned Don Wright Realty, now run by their son Scott, on Friday did not elicit an immediate response.

Don Wright’s obituaries on Dignity Memorial and Legacy.com cited his charitable work with Faith and Liberty and his closeness to Supreme Court justices through his support of the Supreme Court Historical Society. Among the images featured on the Dignity Memorial site were images of the Wrights and their extended family with Scalia and Alito, and of Don Wright with Chief Justice John Roberts.

“The late Antonin Scalia loved hunting and fishing trips with the [Wright] family. But whether he was sitting in a hunting cabin with the guys or at a Supreme Court dinner, he was still the same,” read the obituary on both sites.

In reporting Wright’s death, the Dayton Business Journal wrote on August 3, 2020: “As a trustee of the Supreme Court Historical Society, Wright befriended several prominent judges, including Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Wright said Scalia often accompanied the family on hunting trips.

Supreme Court Historical Society newsletters indicate that Wright was a top donor to the group and was elected a trustee for a three-year term in 2003 and again in 2006.

Schenck said he met the Wrights at Faith Baptist Church in Sarasota, Florida, where he served as a guest pastor and where they attended while staying at their vacation home in nearby Siesta Key.

He said the Wrights held strongly conservative views on abortion, homosexuality, and gun rights, and were dedicated to reinforcing the conservative views of Supreme Court justices on these issues. They were the most active of some 20 couples involved in the Faith and Action program called “Operation High Court,” Schenck said.

All of the couples “knew they were being coached” and adhered to a “relaxed reporting procedure” in which they provided feedback about their dinners with the judges and their wives, Schenck said.

The Wrights were the most involved of all the couples. “They set the standards,” Schenck said. “They were the most active, the most engaged.”

Staver, of Liberty Counsel, said he knew of a case where Schenck coached couples on how to behave with Supreme Court justices — but it had to do with the historical society banquet, not with private dinners.

“What he did was he was talking to them [the couples attending the banquet] on the protocol. I saw him do that once. He was talking to them about how they were Supreme Court justices and he was basically telling them “don’t talk about issues or cases, it’s just dinner”. He himself used it to try to get people to contribute to Faith and Action. Then he asked them how they liked it (the company dinner). It’s coaching he’s talking about. He didn’t say they had to ‘say this or that’.

For her part, Schenck said that in addition to the dinners, Scalia was a guest at the Wrights’ home in Jackson Hole. A financial disclosure report Scalia filed shows that his transportation, food and lodging for a June 2006 visit to Jackson Hole was paid for by the Wyoming State Bar as part of a continuing education program. for lawyers. Similar reports show he spoke at the Wyoming State Bar in Cheyenne in September 2008 and the Federalist Society in Laramie in October 2012, with expenses paid by those groups.

Property records show the Wrights sold their Jackson Hole home in 2013.

As leaders of a distinct branch of government, judges have long established their own ethical standards. They are not bound by the rules applied to other federal judges and decide for themselves whether or not to recuse themselves from cases on conflict of interest grounds. Judges file annual disclosure forms under the Ethics in Government Act requiring them to report gifts totaling more than $415, but meals are rarely reported as gifts and “hospitalities personal” received at a host’s home or business do not need to be declared. Judges also report annually on travel, accommodation and meals received in connection with speaking engagements and legal conferences.

A review of more than a decade of financial disclosures from Thomas, Alito and Scalia found no reports of restaurant or other meals as freebies, other than included food and reimbursed travel and accommodation by groups and entities sponsoring conferences featuring the judges.

There are few public references to Faith and Action’s work with the justice system, but a 2001 article in a Christian magazine, Charisma, described the group’s “Operation High Court” as offering “prayer and ministry to judges of the Supreme Court”.

“The Supreme Court is the most secluded and secluded branch of the American government,” Schenck told the magazine. “They don’t interface with the public, so we literally had to pray to get in there every step of the way.”

In the story, Schenck describes meeting and praying with Scalia just 24 hours after the court released its controversial decision resolving the 2000 presidential election, Bush v. Gore.

Schenck’s own decision to break with the religious right is detailed in the 2015 documentary “The Armor of Light” and his 2018 book, “Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love.”

He is currently director of the Washington-based Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, named after the German theologian who opposed Nazism.

Heidi Przybyla contributed to this report.

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