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.
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.
An in for ideologues, at an affordable price
But 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.
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 comment
Schenck 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.”
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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.”
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 access
At 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 right to legal abortion. Rolling Stone described how Nienaber had prayed with Alito, Scalia, and Thomas — sometimes in their chambers. Nienaber did not respond to requests for comment.
The revelation that an employee of a conservative activist group with an interest in a case pending before the court had such intimate access to the justices sparked newfound interest in the Supreme Court’s murky ethical boundaries.
The relationship between Liberty Counsel and the justices doesn’t end with Nienaber. Liberty Counsel’s founder, Mat Staver, has been on the board of the Supreme Court Historical Society since at least 2008, issues of the society’s newsletter indicate. Nienaber does not appear to be a member.
In an email to Insider, Staver said he had not attended a society event since “at least 2019.” (The society moved most of its programming online between 2020 and 2022 because of the coronavirus pandemic.) “Being a member of the Society is not at all about influencing the Justices,” Staver said.
Liberty Counsel brought a case that appeared before the Supreme Court last year. In a 9-0 decision, the court sided with the religious nonprofit that Boston had erred when it refused to allow a Christian group to fly a flag with a cross on it from a City Hall flagpole.
Louis Virelli, a professor at Stetson University’s law school who wrote a book about Supreme Court recusals, said the Liberty Counsel case presented the clearest example he’d seen in his career of a conflict of interest at the high court.
Even if a justice didn’t talk about anything related to that case, Virelli said, Liberty Counsel was “clearly interested” and “several members of the organization spent intimate, private time with justices” while they were deliberating whether to rescind a federally recognized right to an abortion.
He said that if, as Schenck has alleged, the Supreme Court Historical Society were to enable members such as the Wrights to host justices for private dinners and lavish getaways while the court decides cases in which their groups have a vested interest, that would create “a very serious concern about the justices’ ability to remain impartial.”
A foothold for the Christian right
Other conservative public-interest attorneys arguing high-profile religious-liberties cases have gained a foothold on the society’s board of trustees in the past two decades.
Jay Sekulow, who in 2019 represented Trump before the Supreme Court in the president’s failed bid to keep his tax filings out of the reach of New York’s attorney general, became a trustee in 2003. Sekulow, the director of the conservative legal organization the American Center for Law and Justice, has argued more than a dozen cases before the Supreme Court, largely with the aim of expanding religious groups’ abilities to pray, proselytize, and protest in public places. Sekulow did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2003, Sekulow and Joe Moderow, then the general counsel of UPS, used the weight of their organizations’ lobbying arms to convince Congress to mint a commemorative coin in honor of former Chief Justice John Marshall. A portion of the coin’s sales, roughly $2.5 million, went to the historical society.
Another trustee, Kelly Shackelford, the founder of the Christian legal firm First Liberty Institute, has successfully represented clients before the Supreme Court, such as in the case in which the court ruled last summer that a Maine law prohibiting the use of public funds to pay for religious schools was unconstitutional. Shackelford also represented the Washington State football coach Joe Kennedy in a 2021 case where the court ruled that public-school employees have the right to pray during school sports activities on school grounds.
In an email to Insider, Shackelford disputed that being a society trustee afforded access to justices. The society supports “a good cause,” he said, describing Insider’s reporting as “baseless innuendo.”
Another co-counsel on the Kennedy case was also a society trustee: Paul Clement, the star litigator and former solicitor general who famously quit two white-shoe law firms rather than stop defending the gun industry or the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of marriage for same-sex couples. Clement did not respond to a request for comment.
Shackelford also sits on the board of the Center for National Policy Action, an influential right-wing nonprofit whose members include old-guard Republicans, Tea Party activists, and ardent Trump backers. After the 2020 presidential election, CNP Action called on its members, including leaders of the National Rifle Association and the Federalist Society, to pressure lawmakers into challenging the election results and appointing alternate slates of electors.
Also on CNP Action’s nine-person board: Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas. (Shackelford said he never attended a board meeting with her.)
Potential for conflict
The society has always counted wealthy businesspeople among its trustees. That has often come with the potential for conflicts of interest to arise.
The nonprofit’s headquarters, for instance, were purchased and renovated in 1999 with a major donation from a longtime trustee, Dwight Opperman, whose company West Publishing, now part of Thomson Reuters, has long been one of two dominant players in the legal-research field. Four years earlier, West Publishing had come under scrutiny for underwriting Supreme Court justices’ travel to expensive resorts.
The society’s new breed of trustees are no exception.
As conservative activists ingratiated themselves into the historical society, so, too, did business leaders and top lawyers at some of the country’s largest corporations. The billionaire investor David Rubenstein has been active in the society since joining as a trustee in 2018, interviewing Clarence Thomas at the group’s annual lecture in 2019. (Rubenstein, who received an award for his contributions at a 2018 gala attended by Alito, described his involvement in the society as minimal.)
The general counsels of Chevron, Facebook, Bank of America, UPS, and Home Depot are or have recently been trustees. Chevron, Facebook, Bank of America, HBO, Time Warner, General Electric, Ford, and UPS have also made direct contributions to the historical society, the society’s records show.
Chevron has “given to the Historical Society in the spirit of furthering its stated mission of preserving the Court’s history,” said spokesperson Sean MacCormack. “There was and is no other motivation.”
None of the other companies responded to requests for comment.
Gregory Gallopoulos, the general counsel for the government technology contractor General Dynamics, is also a board member. The company just scored a $298 million contract awarded by the Administrative Office of the US Courts to develop a case-management system for the federal judiciary and in 2010 was a party to a case before the Supreme Court. General Dynamics declined to comment. Gallopoulos did not respond to a request for comment.
Foster Friess, the billionaire investment manager who until his death in 2021 was a GOP megadonor, became a trustee in 2008. Friess made no secret of his contempt for the abortion-rights movement. “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives,” he said in a 2012 MSNBC interview. “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”
Dozens of attorneys who regularly appear before the court are also trustees. Just 10 trustees in this category have together tried more than 500 cases before the court, working either in private practice or for the Department of Justice, including in the role of solicitor general.
Many of those high-powered lawyers have relationships with the justices that predate their roles in the historical society; many were the justices’ clerks or students. But their financial support of an organization so entwined with the Supreme Court, Sherman said, presents an ethical dilemma and creates a link between them and the justices.
“You have people with business before the court that are patrons of a key institution within the court,” Sherman said.
A mutually beneficial relationship
Since its founding by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the society has possessed an unusual degree of access to Supreme Court justices. Under Leon Silverman’s tenure as president, which began in 1991, that connection deepened as he made a concerted effort to forge bonds with individual justices; Clarence Thomas reminisced in 2015 about the “caring friendship” they developed.
Some justices also took a genuine interest in the society’s historical scholarship and would occasionally visit the nonprofit’s offices, a former employee told Insider.
By 2000, at least one justice attended nearly every society event, including its annual dinner, a review of the society’s newsletters indicates. Justices also take turns handing out awards to top historical society donors and trustees. Schenck testified that he watched members at one dinner aggressively jockey for justices’ attention.
Roth, of Fix the Court, described the dynamic between the society and the justices as mutually beneficial. The former helps burnish the reputation and prestige of the Supreme Court through its activities and outreach, while the justices give the society a rare commodity to dangle before current and potential trustees.
“Apart from the State of the Union, Red Mass, and oral argument, where else in Washington, DC, are you guaranteed to see a justice?” Roth said.
Since 2013, the society has also thrown an annual fundraising gala at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, which Alito, Scalia, and Sonia Sotomayor have attended, a public database of the justices’ travel shows. Their presence is an obvious draw for donors, as well as an easy avenue for potential conflicts and questionable attendees.
The conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell was a member of the benefit committee for the inaugural gala in 2013, the year before she published a book that would launch her to fame in the right-wing blogosphere. Powell would later go on to join Trump’s legal team seeking to overturn the 2020 election, becoming a prominent figure in the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement. Powell did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the ethical questions these events present, they offer a windfall for the society — which financial documents show relies heavily on its trustees for financial support. In the year after the 2008 financial crisis, trustees and other donors contributed nearly 74% of the organization’s revenue.
‘For the first time in my career, I do think there is a problem’
Federal judges are bound by a judicial code of conduct that governs conflicts of interest, including prohibitions on participating in some fundraising activities. The code is not binding, and while judges who violate its tenets may be disciplined, they rarely are.
Supreme Court justices, though, aren’t even required to stay within those weak guardrails because no code of ethics governs justices’ behavior. Justices can be impeached by Congress, but that has happened only once, in 1805.
The lack of an ethics code for the nation’s highest legal officers means that while the justices’ involvement in the historical society and its bevy of interested donors may appear suspect, it is entirely legal.
Legislation has been introduced almost every year since 2011 that would require justices to abide by a code of conduct, establish new guidelines for gift reporting, and create more transparency around recusal. It has never passed.
Virelli, the Stetson University professor, has been researching Supreme Court recusal for nearly 15 years. In that time, he said, he’s never encountered an instance in which he thinks the benefits of a justice recusing themselves from a case obviously outweighed the impact of changing the makeup of the nation’s highest court.
He said the potential conflicts represented by the justices’ close and continuing contact with people who have pending matters before the court, including some of the people involved in the historical society, deeply worry him.
“For the first time in my career,” Virelli said, “I do think there is a problem.”