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U.S. Supreme Court unable to determine who leaked draft opinion on abortion rights

The top U.S. court says it cannot determine who leaked a draft of an opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, but the investigation continues.

Ongoing investigation comes up empty-handed after 8 months, almost 100 interviews

Protesters gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on June 24, 2022, as the court ruled in the Dobbs v. Women's Health Organization case, overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court said Thursday it has not determined who leaked a draft of the court's opinion overturning abortion rights, but that the investigation continues.

Eight months after Politico published its explosive leak detailing the draft of Justice Samuel Alito's opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, the court said its investigative team "has to date been unable to identify a person responsible by a preponderance of the evidence."

Never before had an entire opinion made its way to the public before the court was ready to announce it. Chief Justice John Roberts ordered an investigation the next day into what he termed an "egregious breach of trust."

Investigators "conducted 126 formal interviews of 97 employees, all of whom denied disclosing the opinion," the court said.

Some employees had to amend their written statements after they "admitted to telling their spouses about the draft opinion or vote count," the report said.

A fence is covered in signs, in front of a taller fence, in front of a court building.
Security at the Supreme Court was ramped up amid protests sparked by the leak of the draft opinion. This photo shows signs left outside the court by pro-choice protesters on June 28, 2022. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

'Gaps in security'

The court said it could not rule out that the opinion was inadvertently disclosed, "for example, by being left in a public space either inside or outside the building."

Investigators looked closely at connections between court employees and reporters, and they found nothing to substantiate rampant speculation on social media about the identity of the leaker.

The investigation did conclude, however, that it is "unlikely" the court's IT systems were "improperly accessed" by someone, based on an examination of the court's computers, networks, printers and available call and text logs.

The "risk of both deliberate and accidental disclosures of Court-sensitive information" grew with the coronavirus pandemic and shift to working from home, the report said.

Two people in hi-viz vests stand on the steps of a very large marble building.
Law enforcement personnel are seen outside the Supreme Court on July 11, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

More people working from home, "as well as gaps in the Court's security policies, created an environment where it was too easy to remove sensitive information from the building and the Court's IT networks," the report said.

Investigators are continuing to review other "electronic data … and a few other inquiries remain pending," the report said.

Roberts also asked former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, himself a former federal judge, to assess the investigation. Chertoff, in a statement issued through the court, described it as thorough.

Unprecedented leak

Politico published the draft decision on May 2. Less than 24 hours later, Roberts confirmed its authenticity and said he had directed the court's marshal, former army colenol Gail Curley, to lead the investigation.

Since then, there had been silence from the court — until Thursday.

The court had declined to say anything about the status of the investigation or whether an outside law firm or the FBI has been called in or whether it had taken steps to try to prevent a repeat.

A closeup of a man sitting at a microphone.
Chief Justice John Roberts ordered an investigation into the leak in May 2022, a day after Politico reported details of the draft opinion. Roberts is pictured on Capitol Hill on Sept. 15, 2005. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Justice Clarence Thomas spoke in stark terms about the leak's effect on the justices, during a conference in Dallas less than two weeks after the leak became public.

"When you lose that trust, especially in the institution that I'm in, it changes the institution fundamentally. You begin to look over your shoulder. It's like kind of an infidelity that you can explain it, but you can't undo it," he said.

Safety concerns

The leak itself sparked protests and round-the-clock security at justices' homes. Alito said it made the conservative justices who were thought to be in favour of overturning Roe v. Wade "targets for assassination" that "gave people a rational reason to think they could prevent that from happening by killing one of us."

In early June, a man carrying a gun, a knife and zip ties was arrested near Justice Brett Kavanaugh's house in Maryland after threatening to kill him. The man told police he was upset by the leaked draft.

Responding to protests outside the court, officials ringed the building with hard-to-climb fencing, the same barrier that was in place for months following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

When the final decision was released on June 24, it was remarkably similar to the draft that was leaked. Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett voted to overturn Roe.

Speculation has swirled since the draft's release about who might be the source. Only the justices, a small number of staff and the justices' law clerks — young lawyers who spend a year at the court helping the justices with their work — would have had access to the document.

Conservatives pointed fingers at the liberal side of the court, speculating that the leaker was someone upset about the outcome. Liberals suggested it could be someone on the conservative side of the court who wanted to ensure a wavering justice didn't switch sides.

It would have taken just one conservative justice to side with Roberts to alter the decision. Instead of overturning Roe entirely, Roberts favoured weakening abortion rights.

A group of children hold blue and red signs.
Anti-abortion protesters are pictured at a rally in Chicago on June 24, 2022. Protests took place across the U.S. following both the leak and official release of the court's decision. (Paul Beaty/The Associated Press)

With files from CBC News

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