On Saturday morning, the New York Times dropped a bombshell in which Rob Schenck, a former anti-abortion activist, detailed a years-long campaign to buy access at the Supreme Court. The most damaging accusation involves Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 2014 challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. At the time, Hobby Lobby created controversy because of the court’s holding on corporate personhood. It now seems just as relevant because leading anti-abortion groups have more openly attacked chemical birth control, framing it as dangerous to women or likely to cause abortion.
But Schenck’s story is bigger than Hobby Lobby. It’s a tale of insider access to the nation’s most powerful judges. And it bears remarkable similarities to the broader arc of the successful crusade against Roe v. Wade. Opponents of reproductive rights have long understood that money buys access—to state legislatures, to Congress, and yes, to the Supreme Court—while access buys power. If Schenck is telling the truth, then he and his allies simply ran the GOP donor playbook on a justice who proved more than susceptible.
Like many conservative activists, Schenck reportedly spent years cultivating wealthy donors and seeking out intermediaries to those in power. But unlike other activists, Schenck wasn’t trying to establish a connection with an elected official: He wanted friends who could bring him closer to the justices. That mission bore fruit when two of his star donors, the Wrights, developed a relationship with Justice Samuel Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann. Alito allegedly tipped off the Wrights that the court would be invalidating the contraceptive mandate—and that Alito would be the one to write the majority opinion. The Wrights passed along this information to Schenck. Hoping for a donation to his nonprofit, Schenck then reportedly notified Steven Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby.
Alito, who acknowledged his relationship with the Wrights, categorically denied leaking the information, and the Wrights did the same. (Hobby Lobby refused to comment.) As the Times points out, Schenck wasn’t in the room when the conversation between the Wrights and the Alitos went down. But several people remember his sharing the same details in 2014, and contemporaneous records suggest that Schenck had access to confidential information and expected his side to win the case. In Schenck’s telling, this breach was part of a pattern: Schenck (and the Wrights) drew close not just to Alito but also to Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The story resonates because the fight to erase abortion rights has long intersected with battles over influence-peddling and money in politics. It all began with the relationship forged between the anti-abortion movement and the Republican Party in the early 1980s. After Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion activists had hoped that Republicans would help them amend the Constitution to ban abortion across the country, but that attempt had failed. The anti-abortion movement reversed course, seeking to control the Supreme Court rather than rewrite the Constitution.
The working assumption was that electing Republicans would guarantee a Supreme Court decision reversing Roe, but that turned out to be wrong. In 1992, the Supreme Court turned away an invitation to reverse Roe v. Wade, notwithstanding the fact that anti-abortion Republicans had placed a majority on the court.
Groups like the National Right to Life Committee (along with its general counsel, James Bopp Jr.) believed that campaign finance reform was hobbling social conservatives, giving an edge to the legacy media and the party establishment while muzzling the grassroots right. More money in politics, they thought, could empower anti-abortion activists, increasing their influence over politicians and proving the worth of an alliance with abortion foes to anxious GOP leaders. Plus, if Republicans could raise more money, they would win more races and stand a better chance of shaping the court.
Bopp launched the James Madison Center for Free Speech to challenge campaign finance rules, with GOP megadonor Betsy DeVos on its board of directors. National Right to Life Committee retooled its congressional ratings to account for positions on campaign finance and lobbied other social conservatives to join the fight to deregulate campaign spending.
Anti-abortion activists were particularly invested in fights about dark money. They had reason to worry about donor disclosure, after all. Their movement at times promoted restrictions that played well with the public, but the ultimate goal remained the recognition of fetal personhood—the idea of fetal rights that would make abortion itself unconstitutional. That idea had always been deeply unpopular; polls consistently showed that only between 12 and 20 percent of Americans wanted to ban all abortions (with possible exceptions for the life of the pregnant person). Donors who supported personhood might not want that known to their colleagues, families, or friends.
And then there was the possibility of a grassroots backlash. In 2008, organizations opposing marriage equality fought for a ballot initiative, Prop 8, that would once again ban same-sex marriage in California. When it passed, grassroots activists took advantage of California’s public records laws to expose donors to the Prop 8 campaign. The backlash to Prop 8 frightened anti-abortion activists who worried about what Bopp called the “grave constitutional injuries that can result from disclosing ordinary citizens’ personal information.”
The notorious Citizens United case was supposed to be a case about protecting donor secrecy. It turned out to focus on something else that was just as explosive: allowing unlimited independent corporate expenditures. Because of Citizens United, ideological nonprofits like Schenck’s or Bopp’s could raise and spend a functionally unlimited amount of money.
But that didn’t make secrecy any less important. Just last summer, the conservative Supreme Court majority voted 6–3 to strike down a California law requiring nonprofits to provide the state with the names of their top donors. One of the plaintiffs, the Thomas More Society, is now leading the charge for laws preventing out-of-state travel for abortion.
All of this money went partly to the effort to find a different kind of Supreme Court justice: One who was not only a self-proclaimed originalist or conservative but also a judge who was indifferent to the prospect of public backlash, one comfortable enough with his own legal community and political commitments that a deeply unpopular decision would become a badge of honor.
Schenck’s campaign to buy influence was one way to guarantee that this kind of justice sat on the court. Another was to change the GOP itself, to make divisive nominees a virtue rather than a vice, a get-out-the-vote tool for socially conservative voters. It was no accident that Trump voters attending rallies in 2020 urged the then-president to “fill that seat”—Trump pledged that his nominees would deliver certain results, not least the reversal of Roe. The fight to undo abortion rights also became a campaign to change the way money works in politics—and to transform the way the Supreme Court does business. We can draw a line, it seems, from Citizens United through Hobby Lobby and all the way to Roe’s demise.
In Schenck’s narrative, the push to breach the court was fueled by secrecy: code names for justices, insider trading tidbits, networks of influence. That’s no surprise. Many right-wing movements identify as conservative while seeking to fundamentally change the country. Schenck’s claims offer the reminder that radical shifts in the law do not require popular support when they are fueled by enough dark money to win the ear of those in power.