Funding mostly absent from Supreme Court security discussion
Renewed focus on threats to justices comes as calls to beef up lower court security funding have gone largely unheeded
Threats against the nation’s highest court are being taken seriously at the uppermost levels of government in the aftermath of this month’s leak of a draft Supreme Court ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland earlier this month deployed U.S. marshals to provide “around the clock” security at justices’ homes. The Department of Homeland Security is investigating threats that include “burning down or storming the U.S. Supreme Court and murdering Justices and their clerks, members of Congress, and lawful demonstrators,” according to an internal memo obtained by NBC News.
But even as the court prepares to release its official ruling, which could come during any opinion day before the end of June, such threats aren’t translating into more funding to protect justices and their families.
Thus far, lawmakers can’t even agree on Senate-passed legislation that would extend the statutory authority of the Supreme Court’s marshal and police force to protect the families of justices and court officers. Democrats want to add language protecting the families of court employees, whom Republicans suspect of leaking the draft opinion.
While a compromise could yet be hashed out, there hasn’t been much sense of urgency when it comes to added financial resources. Some of that may be due to deficit-spending fatigue on Capitol Hill, but at least one spending hawk says he has a way to give the Supreme Court’s security apparatus extra cash without adding to the deficit.
Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., says $10 million could come from the Federal Protective Service, which safeguards federal agency buildings and courthouses. The self-funded Homeland Security division charges other agencies a fee for its security services, estimated to bring in about $1.65 billion this year.
Hagerty’s bill would transfer the funds to the Supreme Court to “address increased security threats against” justices and their families as well as officers and employees of the court. If the Federal Protective Service finds itself coming up short to carry out its regular duties, Hagerty’s bill would allow them to charge higher fees.
Hagerty, who was one of 11 GOP senators to vote against the $40.1 billion Ukraine aid package last week, initially held up that measure in order to draw attention to his court security proposal. At the time, senators said further study was needed and they didn’t want to delay the Ukraine measure.
“He kind of figured to fight this battle another day,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “There were a series of conversations around it.”
‘Still working through’
But Hagerty’s bill faces a murky path forward. Top appropriators said last week they are not familiar with Hagerty’s effort, and Thune, R-S.D., said there were no immediate plans to vote on it.
Hagerty said court officials told his office they needed some temporary funding to provide the security laid out in Senate-passed legislation from John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Coons, D-Del., that would extend Supreme Court Marshal protections to the families of justices and court officers.
He’s not sure when he’ll get a vote, but Hagerty’s perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee will present additional opportunities this year.
“We’re still working through how we will manage the appropriations process,” Hagerty said. “I still think it’s pressing, and I just pray nothing happens as we work through the funding mechanism.”
Cornyn said he’s open to additional funding for Supreme Court security, but the initial ask from the court was just for the authorities laid out in his and Coons’ bill.
“That wasn’t their immediate request, but if they need it, I’m open to it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cornyn’s bill has run into a roadblock as the House is trying to add protections for Supreme Court staff. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., last week said he thinks a House bill, led by Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., which adds protection for staff, “makes sense.”
Cornyn said “nobody knows who the staff are” and that he wants the House to pass the Senate’s version due to the immediate need.
“We don’t have time to mess around with this,” he said. “We can follow up this narrow bill with something broader, and I would likely support it. But dragging your feet on this while the justices and their families are exposed is irresponsible.”
Cornyn last week said Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer was planning to reach out to House leadership to express support for the legislation. The House adjourned Thursday without moving on Cornyn’s legislation, with the next day of votes scheduled for June 7.
There’s no companion House bill to Hagerty’s legislation.
Top Senate GOP appropriator Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said he isn’t sure if additional Supreme Court security funding is needed, and that Hagerty’s bill ought to go through the regular committee process.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is working with the court and Hagerty’s office to determine any immediate needs, a Republican committee aide said.
Typically, the Supreme Court Police are tasked with protecting justices while in the District of Columbia, while the U.S. Marshals Service provides security outside of Washington when requested. Garland’s new directive adds some of the marshals’ muscle now to help protect justices’ homes.
Supreme Court Police funding is included in the “salaries and expenses” total for the Supreme Court. In fiscal 2022, $98.3 million was allocated for the salaries and expenses account, with $107.2 million requested for fiscal 2023. Out of that 9 percent proposed increase, $2.9 million is for police radio equipment, security cameras, and “building and grounds access control.”
Gabe Roth, executive director for Fix the Court, an advocacy group, said he hopes the high court is considering recent threats against the newest justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, as it weighs its security needs.
“I saw the Supreme Court’s budget proposal … and there was no request for increased security, which I found a bit troubling given that this is the first time that they have a black woman on the Supreme Court,” he said. “And we already know there have been threats against her, largely in part due to the bad faith attacks that were made against her.”
The Supreme Court didn’t respond to requests for comment.
House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, said if the Supreme Court asked for more appropriations for security for fiscal 2023, she would support it. But appropriators have not yet heard that from the court, she said.
Hagerty said he thinks $10 million is the minimum needed to ensure short-term security. “I hope this is a very temporary issue,” he said. “But right now, it’s a very real issue in terms of a heightened security threat against our nation’s Supreme Court justices and their families.”
The Financial Services Appropriations subcommittees in each chamber have jurisdiction over the federal court system’s funding. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who leads that panel in his chamber, said appropriators will evaluate the threats to the Supreme Court and wider court system.
Hagerty’s proposal wouldn’t technically require added money given it would come from the Federal Protective Service. But if they end up charging others more, those agencies would have to eat the added cost or ask Congress for more funds.
In the current environment, Hagerty is finding little enthusiasm, even on his own side of the aisle.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., a member of the Financial Services Appropriations panel, said he thinks all nondefense funds should be frozen at current levels. “We have to do our part to control inflation,” he said.
The renewed focus on threats facing the Supreme Court comes as calls to beef up lower court security funding have gone largely unheeded.
Congress has not acted on calls by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal court system, over the past two years for supplemental security funding.
Despite the 2020 murder of Daniel Anderl, the son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas, and a number of other recent instances of violence perpetrated against court officers, legislation aimed at limiting the personal information available on the internet about judges and their families remains stalled. That legislation has drawn First Amendment concerns from Roth and others.
Threats against the court system are only growing, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which counted up a 387 percent increase in threats against judges and court personnel between 2015 and 2021. And that’s before the latest fracas over the landmark 1973 abortion ruling.
The marshals receive their own funding as well as a large chunk of the separate court security account in the federal judiciary budget, which funds the lower courts. Direct U.S. Marshals Service appropriations this fiscal year total $1.58 billion, a nearly 6 percent increase; the White House has asked for $1.81 billion in fiscal 2023, which would be a hefty 14 percent boost.
In fiscal 2022, however, Congress docked the administration’s Marshals Service request by $60 million. Although lawmakers may be more sympathetic this year given the marshals’ new duties providing 24/7 security for high court justices, the chief obstacle — as ever — is a constricted funding environment.
“The issue is just overall tight budgets,” Van Hollen said. “There are a whole range of important priorities we’d like to fund.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.