Members of Congress have moved particularly quickly — at “lightning speed,” as one senator put it — to beef up Supreme Court security and address a wave of protests at homes of justices in the last few days.
Those protests, prompted by last week’s leak of a Supreme Court opinion on abortion rights, collided with simmering concerns about judicial security and sent Congress into an unusual flurry of activity. In the past few days, members have pushed to move measures and funding on judicial safety as well as push the Justice Department to crack down on allegedly illegal protests.
On Monday, the Senate passed a bill by unanimous consent to expand the Supreme Court police’s authority to protect justices and their families around the clock. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Coons, D-Del., had introduced it just a few days earlier.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty wants an additional $10 million for efforts to protect the justices, and for a while Thursday threatened to hold up swift passage of the $40 billion supplemental funding bill for Ukraine unless his funding bill got a vote, too.
“Failing to act in this hour of obvious need would be shameful and could be disastrous,” Hagerty said in a statement. After dropping the hold, Hagerty said the move had started a bipartisan conversation about funding Supreme Court security.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., sought a quick floor vote Thursday on his bill to allow justices and other federal judges to demand their personal information, such as home addresses, be wiped off the internet. The bill was approved by the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support in December.
Menendez’s argument: the urgency shown Monday for the Supreme Court protection bill. “That went through lightning speed, that didn't even have a hearing, didn't go through the process of the Judiciary Committee like this bill has," Menendez said.
But something more typical of the Senate happened: Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who wants the bill to also give that power to members of Congress, blocked the floor action. Paul cited the mass shootings in 2011 that wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a constituent event, and a 2017 attack that severely injured Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
At a House Judiciary Committee markup Wednesday, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., twice attempted to get unanimous consent to vote on a House version of the Supreme Court protection bill. Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., objected.
Issa, who introduced the bill Tuesday, called the protests outside justices’ homes an “imminent threat” to their safety. And Issa said the bill comes “at a time in which the threat is real, and it is current, and it is clearly intimidation.”
Issa and other Republicans at the meeting argued the protests outside of justice’s homes constituted threats to their safety. They cited a federal law that prohibits “pickets or parades” outside the homes of federal judges, juries or court officials with the intent to influence the outcome of a case.
Several Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pushed the Biden Justice Department to stop the protests. In a letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Tuesday, Rubio called the protests outside the justices’ homes part of an “ongoing, coordinated campaign of intimidation,” meant to swing votes in the pending abortion case.
“These woke actors are not engaged in protected speech but instead attempting to intimidate Supreme Court Justices into submission,” Rubio wrote.
Garland has been briefed on the Justice Department's efforts to safeguard the Supreme Court and justices, a department spokesman said in a news release Wednesday. Garland also directed the U.S. Marshals Service, which provides security for the judicial branch, to "help ensure the Justices’ safety by providing additional support" to Supreme Court police.
'The American way'
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer pushed back on accusations that protestors had violated federal law. The New York Democrat told reporters Tuesday that such demonstrations are “the American way” and there are regular protests outside his New York home.
The talk left little doubt that the upcoming decision on a Mississippi abortion law, where the justices appear poised to reverse the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that established a constitutional right to abortion, would mark a turning point in security for the high court.
Protesters gathered outside justices’ homes during the past week, an exceedingly rare personal outcry about court action, chanting, “we will not go back.”
Jonathan Peters, a First Amendment law professor at the University of Georgia, said the leak added to the public’s regard of the court as political, nurtured over the years by court decisions seen as partisan and the increasingly acrimonious confirmation process.
“It's critical for the court to be regarded by the public as impartial, trustworthy, above the political fray, distinguished from Congress and the presidency. And I think a lot of that is now being brought into question again,” Peters said.
There’s a segment of society that thought the court “always has been and always will be a political animal filled with political actors,” Peters said, “and they've got to be able to see it for what it is, and talk about it for what it is, and protest it.”
Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.