How anti-abortion activists, corporate bigwigs and conflicted parties co-opted a little-known society to buy priceless access to the Supreme Court

Joining the board of trustees of the Supreme Court Historical Society provides priceless access to justices -- at a surprisingly affordable rate.

How anti-abortion activists, corporate bigwigs and conflicted parties co-opted a little-known society to buy priceless access to the Supreme Court

In late 2000, the Supreme Court Historical Society was in dire straits. Founded by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1974 to preserve artifacts and support scholarship related to the court's history, the small, stodgy nonprofit had taken stock of its finances and found a yawning gap between its ambitions and its means. Its president at the time, Leon Silverman, a former assistant deputy United States attorney general, announced in the group's quarterly newsletter that things needed to change. He wrote that the society needed "to place substantial and immediate emphasis on its Annual Fund campaign and should consider adding a corporate sponsor program with assistance from corporate officers on the Society's Board of Trustees" to "identify sympathetic corporate and foundation donors." Going forward, he added, the society would select new trustees for its board of directors largely based on their ability to provide "financial support" for the organization.  Before Silverman raised the alarm, the society hadn't attracted much attention — or money — from people outside the legal profession, Insider's review of the nonprofit's trustees throughout the 1990s found.

Most of its donors were legal-history buffs and aging philanthropists.But it wasn't long before new faces started showing up at society events and board meetings.In 2003, the Ohio real-estate developer Don Wright joined the board of trustees. In 2007, so did Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza. By 2010, they were joined by the GOP megadonor Harlan Crow, the son of the real-estate magnate Trammell Crow. These new members were part of a wave of right-wing ideologues, corporate representatives, and wealthy conservative power brokers who flocked to the Supreme Court Historical Society over the past two decades, Insider's analysis found, using the little-known group to gain unprecedented access to one of the most elusive and secretive judicial bodies on the planet.

The donors leveraged relatively small sums of cash into privileged face time with the very Supreme Court justices who were in some instances deciding cases to which their companies or affiliated advocacy organizations were parties.An analysis of the society's donors published by The New York Times in late December identified at least $6.4 million in donations since 2003 coming from groups or individuals that argued cases before the court. (The Times had previously reported that one donor, the anti-abortion activist Rob Schenck, claimed to have used the society to infiltrate Justice Samuel Alito's inner circle and gain access to information about a pending decision.)Insider's investigation into nearly three decades' worth of Supreme Court Historical Society records found that the extensive network of donors and trustees with vested interests before the court was rife with right-wing religious activists and corporations. In exchange for as little as a few thousand dollars in contributions to the nonprofit, these people received easy access to events where Supreme Court justices would be. Among the new donors were Monaghan, the founder of a stable of nonprofits and political action committees advocating against abortion access, including one that was a party to a case before the Supreme Court last year; Jay Sekulow, a longtime member of President Donald Trump's personal legal team; Sidney Powell, the attorney who's promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory; and Crow, the scion of a real-estate fortune who in 2009 gave $500,000 to a conservative consulting firm founded by the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Supreme Court Historical society trustee Jay Sekulow, center, represented President Trump during the latter's impeachment trial in 2020. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images Neither the historical society nor the Supreme Court responded to questions and requests for comment sent with detailed descriptions of Insider's reporting.  But in interviews with Insider, people close to the historical society argued that the nonprofit's influence pales in comparison to better-known avenues of access to Supreme Court justices. Alumni of the law schools at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and New York University, for instance, can attend events with justices sometimes several times a year.Others disputed that schmoozing with justices at society events could be an avenue for influence.

"I can't imagine anyone trying to gain any insight or any special favors through the historical society," said Chuck Dietz, the former general counsel of the Fortune 500 manufacturing company 3M. Dietz served as a trustee from 1991 through the early 2000s and was listed as a major donor in a society newsletter in 2021. Getting time with a justice, he said, meant that "you visit, you small-talk, that's it." Four other people close to the society echoed the view that the nonprofit's events would be an unlikely way to grow close to the justices.  The US Supreme Court is seen behind fences in Washington, DC, on May 11, 2022. Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images An in for ideologues, at an affordable priceBut if Supreme Court justices are intended to be above the political fray and carry a noble air of inaccessibility, the historical society offered partisan activists such as Wright, Monaghan, and Crow an inroad at a surprisingly affordable price.

Less than $10,000, two recent trustees said, could ultimately earn a donor a spot on the board. Wright, Monaghan, and Crow have had ideological interests in the decisions of the court. They shared a history of conservative activism and have been major donors to right-wing Christian causes. In many instances, they have called for the Supreme Court justices to take an expansive view of religious liberties that would limit abortion access and enshrine Christian values in government. Monaghan, the octogenarian pizza magnate, has founded a slew of right-wing nonprofits dedicated to ending legal abortion.

One of the groups he founded, the Thomas More Law Center, has filed dozens of amicus briefs on cases pertaining to abortion access, the separation of church and state, and marriage equality — including at least four while Monaghan served as a trustee between 2007 and 2013. Thomas More Law Center has also been a named party in two cases seeking a hearing before the Supreme Court. The court declined to hear one of the cases, which challenged the Affordable Care Act, in 2011. In the other, in 2021, the court sided with the law center and a group funded by the Koch brothers in saying that states could not compel nonprofits to reveal their donors.

Neither Monaghan nor the law center responded to requests for comment. Anti-abortion advocates cheer in front of the Supreme Court after the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores was announced in 2014.

The decision, holding that family-owned corporations could not be required to pay for employees' contraceptive healthcare, was widely seen as a victory for the Christian right. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Crow, the Texan megadonor who owns a formidable collection of statues of dictators, is best known for his close friendship with Justice Thomas — a friendship that has at times seemed to be fueled by Crow's largesse. Crow spent millions to build a museum in Thomas' hometown, a project said to be close to the justice's heart.

In 2009, Crow gave Thomas' wife, Ginni, $500,000 to start a lobbying group linked to the Tea Party. Crow is a major backer of libertarian think tanks and political action committees. A cofounder of the anti-tax Club for Growth, he is also on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, which has offered backing to legal efforts aimed at overturning provisions of the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, including two cases that will be decided by the court in the coming term.

Crow did not respond to a request for commentSchenck said in testimony before Congress last month that Wright, who died in 2020, was one of the people who infiltrated the society under Schenck's direction. (Schenck did not respond to requests for comment.) Wright and his wife, Gayle, grew so close to Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas through their involvement with the historical society that they hosted the justices for vacation getaways, went on hunting trips, and privately ate meals together.Schenck has said that at a dinner in 2014, Alito told the Wrights about the court's decision in a consequential case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, before it became public.

(The New York Times reported in November that it had seen documents corroborating Schenck's account of the dinner.) The case, codifying that employers could decline to cover health plans that included birth control, was widely seen as a victory for the religious right.Alito and Gayle Wright have denied that the justice ever shared information about a pending case. Alito did not respond to a request for comment on his involvement in the Supreme Court Historical Society. Gayle Wright could not be reached by phone or email, and messages left with her real-estate-development company went unanswered. While Don Wright was a trustee, Faith and Liberty, Schenck's religious nonprofit that for years was known as Faith and Action, had a stake in numerous cases before the court.

Another trustee and Schenck ally, the personal-injury lawyer Bernard Reese, submitted seven briefs to the court on behalf of Faith and Liberty, arguing against abortion rights and in favor of prayer and religious monuments in public institutions. Reese died in 2021. Schenck did not respond to requests for comment.Selling access is the 'entire fundraising model'Though Wright, Monaghan, and Crow were some of the clearest examples of the new wave of right-wing ideologues who joined the society, they were hardly alone.

While the society itself avoided partisanship and included left-leaning trustees and Democratic administration alumni, it increasingly attracted trustees whose proximity to the judges could represent conflicts of interest.The society's enabling of donors with pending business before the court to mingle with justices is "ethically risky," said Gabe Roth, a judicial-reform advocate who serves as the executive director of Fix the Court. Though the society may have started as "a mutual-benefit society with a fun lecture circuit," he said, it has transformed "to something potentially nefarious." Do you have a tip or insight to share? Contact reporter Katherine Long via phone or the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-206-375-9280), or at EMAIL. Contact reporter Jack Newsham via Signal (+1-314-971-1627), or at EMAIL.The slow infiltration of the historical society may have been especially pernicious in part because of the group's low profile and stodgy reputation.

"Court personnel assumed the society properly vetted its trustees," Schenck testified last month before Congress, saying he hoped his operatives' "status as trustees might assuage suspicions about" their motives. Donald Sherman, the senior vice president and chief counsel for the left-leaning government-accountability nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, described selling access to Supreme Court justices as the historical society's "entire fundraising model."  Top society donors, such as far-right Christian attorney Kelly Shackelford, receive awards ceremonially presented by Supreme Court Justices at the nonprofit's annual dinner. Supreme Court Historical Society The society prints photos in its quarterly newsletter of justices handing out awards to top donors — then asks for donations.

Justices attend nearly every one of the society's events: its annual dinner, held in the capacious marble entryway to the Supreme Court's chambers; its fundraising gala at the Plaza Hotel in New York; its lecture series; and its less formal discussion groups. Leon Silverman, who was the society's president for 11 years, said in one newsletter that the justices' "attendance at these events gives members an opportunity to meet them in a relatively informal setting."Insider did not find evidence that the society's benefactors discussed pending cases with justices at society events. Whether that took place, though, is immaterial, advocates for judicial transparency say. As the society's wealthy trustees and donors — many of whom have business before the court — wine and dine justices, opportunities for conflicts proliferate. Supreme Court justices are not governed by the same ethics and transparency standards that apply to lower courts and are not required to recuse themselves from ruling in a case where they have a conflict of interest.

That means justices can rule on these cases without the public or the opposing party in the case ever knowing about their conflicts.That lack of transparency explains how a quaint nonprofit with an earnest mission can easily become "a thinly veiled effort by interested parties to inappropriately influence the justices," Sherman said. "You don't have to scratch too hard beneath the surface to understand how actual conflicts can arise."An unusual level of accessAt a rally in front of the Supreme Court last summer to celebrate the Court's overturning of Roe v Wade, a YouTube livestreamer attending the event asked the anti-abortion crusader Peggy Nienaber a question."You actually pray with the Supreme Court justices?" the livestreamer said. "I do," Nienaber, an employee of the right-wing public-interest law firm Liberty Counsel, replied.

"They will pray with us, those that like us to pray with them."In the just-released majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito had cited a legal brief written by Liberty Counsel in support of eliminating the federal righ