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Congress takes unimpressive stab at Alito leak claim, with key questions lingering

Don’t mistake Thursday’s House Judiciary hearing for an investigation. We’re no wiser about the alleged 2014 leak of Alito’s Hobby Lobby opinion. 

Jim Jordan “OBLITERATES the credibility of the Democrats’ star witness at today’s hearing examining the Supreme Court.”

So reads a Thursday tweet from House Judiciary GOP (readers might recognize the account for its infamous — and recently deleted — "Kanye. Elon. Trump." tweet).

The supposed obliteration came during the Ohio Republican’s questioning of the Rev. Rob Schenck, the former anti-abortion activist at the center of The New York Times’ bombshell Nov. 19 report about a religious-right campaign to influence the court. In the report, Schenck alleged he was made aware of Justice Samuel Alito's 2014 Hobby Lobby opinion before it was public.

When it comes to the alleged Alito leak, Thursday’s hearing didn’t come closer to sorting out the “he said, they said.”

To understand what was obliterated and what wasn’t, recall the circumstances leading to Thursday’s hearing over "Operation Higher Court." Schenck reportedly told the Times he got advance notice of the contentious 5-4 contraception ruling from Gayle Wright, one of the “stealth missionaries” he deployed to wine and dine Republican-appointed justices on what was then a more closely divided court. According to Schenck, Wright told him the result (a win for conservatives) and the author (Alito) after Wright and her husband ate at the justice’s home in 2014. Alito denied the leak on behalf of himself and his wife, as did Wright, whose husband has since died.

Because these explosive allegations rely heavily on one man, an important piece of evidence seemed to be an email reportedly seen by the Times that Wright sent Schenck after the dinner in question. According to the Times, it read, “Rob, if you want some interesting news please call. No emails.” It was after that, Schenck reportedly said, that Wright told him about the leak.

But Wright’s explanation to the Times has been one of the weirdest parts of this latest court crisis, which extends well beyond the alleged leak, to the broader infiltration operation. The Times reported:

Mrs. Wright said that while she did not have her calendars from those days, she believed the night in question involved a dinner at the Alitos’ home during which she fell ill. She said that the justice drove her and her husband back to her hotel, and that this might have been the news she wanted to share with Mr. Schenck.

That explanation is worthy of further exploration, to say the least. So when the House Judiciary Committee said it would hold a hearing on the matter, it seemed like a forum that could provide a good opportunity for such an exploration.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the only hearing witness involved in the alleged leak was Schenck, leaving Democrats to bolster him while Republicans like Jordan tried to tarnish him. 

Which brings us to the obliteration — or whatever it was.

The congressman began by asking Schenck, “Did Gayle Wright really tell you that?”

“Yes,” Schenck said.

“Justice Alito said he didn’t tell her,” Jordan countered. “She said she didn’t tell him. But you’re sure she told you?” 

“Absolutely,” Schenck said.

Not exactly a Perry Mason moment.

Rather, the ranking member focused on a book the witness wrote. Jordan zeroed in on a passage about a Supreme Court case from the 1990s involving Schenck’s brother, the Rev. Paul Schenck. The passage said Paul was called “reverend” in court by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist — something Schenck deemed important enough to emphasize in his book — but, according to audio of that hearing Jordan played, that actually didn't happen.   

So the Republican may well have obliterated that book passage (whatever its value) and, more importantly, called into question Schenck’s ability to retell past events — an important trait for a lone whistleblower. But the exchange and the hearing overall failed to answer or even probe, for example, why Wright didn’t want to record in an email the “interesting news” she had for Schenck after dining with the Alitos. Without her or the Alitos’ testimony or any other public evidence — the Times reported it found evidence backing Schenck’s claim — we’re left with their unsworn denials, while Schenck, however hobbled a witness he is, is now under oath swearing to the contrary.

Likewise, Arizona Republican Andy Biggs’ attack on Schenck served to underscore that lawmakers at the hearing weren't interested in getting to the bottom of the leak allegation.

Biggs called Schenck’s claim hearsay. True enough. But if that’s the complaint, then why not determine if there’s direct evidence either supporting or disputing it, by gathering whatever witnesses are available to testify and investigating whatever evidence they do or don’t have? Obviously, Republicans don’t want to put heat on Wright or the Alitos — they’re all on the same team — but it’s unclear what efforts Democrats who currently control the committee have made on that front, either.

To be sure, the hearing wasn’t only about the alleged leak. It spotlighted the lack of enforceable ethics rules for the justices, the court’s nonchalance while operating on an ethical honor system without the public’s trust, and potential legislative solutions to that problem. What legislation is passed and what effect it would have on the court remains to be seen.

But when it comes to the alleged Alito leak, Thursday’s hearing didn’t come closer to sorting out the “he said, they said.” With Democrats losing the House next year, that congressional obligation turns to the Senate to shine a brighter light. Let’s hope senators are more eager than their House counterparts to investigate the Alito allegation and find out what really happened in 2014.