U.S. Supreme Court defends Alito over report of second leak

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By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Counsel for the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday defended Justice Samuel Alito after two Democratic lawmakers demanded answers to a former anti-abortion leader's claim that he was told in advance of the outcome of a key 2014 ruling that the conservative lawyer wrote a case about contraceptives.
"There is no indication that Judge Alito's actions violated ethical standards," Counsel Ethan Torrey wrote in a letter to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Hank Johnson.
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It concerned a Nov. 19 New York Times report quoting Christian Minister Rob Schenck, who said he was briefed on the 2014 ruling weeks before it was to be made public, after two of his Conservative allies in the House of Alito and his wife had dinner. The court has shared its findings in an investigation announced by Chief Justice John Roberts into a draft judgment overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade's 1973 law that legalized abortion nationwide.
Torrey, whose job it is to assist the nine judges on case-related issues and provide legal services to the court as an institution, wrote in his letter that Alito had already stated that neither he nor his wife disclosed the decision in the case and at all had such a claim is unconfirmed.
"Relevant rules balance preventing gifts that could undermine public confidence in the judiciary and allowing judges to maintain normal personal friendships," Torrey wrote.
The 2014 decision in Burwell v. Like June's abortion decision, Hobby Lobby was a victory for religious conservatives. The Hobby Lobby decision exempted family businesses that objected to a state requirement on religious grounds that any health insurance they offer employees must cover female birth control.
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Torrey was responding to a Nov. 20 letter from Whitehouse and Johnson asking Roberts whether the court was investigating the claims related to Schenck or reevaluating its practices related to judicial ethics.
"It appears that the underlying problem is the lack of a formal mechanism for complaints or investigations into possible ethics or reporting violations," lawmakers wrote in their letter.
They added that unless the court is willing to conduct its own investigations into ethics violations, "Congress is the only forum left."
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel is reviewing the matter. Durbin pushed for the passage of legislation that would create a code of ethics for the Supreme Court.
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Schenck, who used to run an evangelical Christian nonprofit group in Washington, was quoted as saying he used his knowledge of the Hobby Lobby ruling to prepare a public relations campaign and he also interviewed the arts and crafts chain's president informed of the result. According to the Times, Schenck wrote to Roberts about his allegation.
Schenck described in the Times report how two of his star donors, Ohio couple Donald and Gayle Wright, had dinner with the Alitos in early June 2014. Schenck said one of the Wrights then told him that Alito had written the Hobby Lobby's opinion and that it was in favor of the company, the newspaper reported. The decision was publicly announced three weeks later.
In a statement released after the Times report was published, Alito said he and his wife had a "purely social relationship" with the Wrights and that he had firmly opposed any attempts to obtain confidential information.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Laura Sanicola; Editing by Will Dunham)
Samuel Alito
Justice of the US Supreme Court since 2006 (born 1950)
Rob Schenk
American Christian minister (1958-)
Hank Johnson
American politician
Sheldon Whitehouse
American politician

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