Private prayers: US pastor describes Supreme Court influence effort
The United States Supreme Court building. (Shutterstock.com)

A former activist from the US religious right told Congress Thursday how he took advantage of the US Supreme Court's lack of a code of ethics to conduct an intense lobbying campaign aimed at its conservative judges.

Pastor Robert Schenck, 64, detailed his efforts -- which included prayers, dinners and trips -- during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee focused on the ethics rules, or lack thereof, for Supreme Court justices.

Unlike their colleagues in federal courts, or elected members of Congress, the nine Supreme Court justices do not have to disclose gifts given to them nor any meetings with lobbyists, and are not legally required to recuse themselves in the event of a conflict of interest.

Pastor Schenck said he took advantage of this vacuum to run a 20-year influence campaign called "Operation Higher Court."

The stealth campaign "involved my recruitment of wealthy donors, as stealth missionaries, who befriended justices that shared our conservative social and religious sensibilities," Schenk said, mentioning conservative Justices Samuel Alito and the late Antonin Scalia by name.

The aim was "to shore up their resolve to render solid, unapologetic opinions, particularly against abortion."

Some of his "stealth missionaries" prayed with the judges, others invited them to dinner with their wives, even to their homes, and were invited back in turn by the justices, he said.

Unlike Congress, where the dollar value of gifts are limited, "we knew that there was a great deal of liberty and latitude there...it made our operation...much easier," Schenck said.

He alleged that in 2014, during one of these dinners, Alito "leaked" to a couple the content of an upcoming decision on contraception.

Schenck had written over the summer to the court's chief justice about the Alito incident, but the letter was not reported by US media until late November.

Alito and the dinner attendees have all denied the charge. During the hearing, Republican lawmakers accused Schenck of lying.

He insisted that he discovered late in life that politics corrupts religion, and now wanted to tell "the truth."

Alito was the author of the June ruling that overturned the US nationwide right to abortion.

In a highly uncommon occurrence, that decision was leaked before its publication, causing shockwaves across the country.

A bill has passed a House committee that would increase the transparency requirements for US Supreme Court justices, but it is not expected to advance before Republicans take over control of the House in January, when it will likely be thrown out.

© Agence France-Presse