Policy

Supreme Court Justices Make Their Own Security Choices, Documents Reveal

Watchdog group says domestic travel policy should be tightened

The sun sets on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 03/14/18 at 11:06 a.m. | Supreme Court justices only get security protection during domestic trips outside the Washington metropolitan area when they request it, according to a U.S. Marshals Service policy unveiled Wednesday by a court watchdog group.

Fix the Court, a nonpartisan group that advocates accountability and transparency at the Supreme Court, obtained the security policy and hundreds of pages of related records through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The documents are an official and more detailed peek inside a security arrangement that gives justices broad discretion when it comes to their protection.

At just over one page long, the security policy highlights a need for more comprehensive security protocols for justices, said Gabe Roth, the group’s executive director. The lack of some requirements is concerning given potential threats and the “fading health” of several of the aging justices, he said.

The group also used other documents it obtained about the protection of justices for domestic travel in July 2015 — a $69,039 cost to taxpayers — to confirm that justices don’t always use the marshals for security. Names of the justices were redacted but the group pieced together details from other sources that underscore the potential risks.

The Supreme Court did not immediately return requests for comment.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. apparently did not seek protection from deputy marshals for the U.S. leg of a July 2015 trip to Japan, the group found. 

Since several lines of redacted text appear in document fields about threat assessments, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor might have faced threats on trips to New York and Massachusetts for which they did request marshals’ protection, the group said.

And details about protection of Justice Antonin Scalia during his fateful hunting trip to western Texas in February 2016 when he died show marshals were unaware of his potential failing health at the time and were absent from the scene for hours after his death, according to the documents.

“The public should be confident that Supreme Court justices are well-protected, both inside their building and when they venture out into the world,” Roth said. “That the justices can decline protection when they travel to the most far-flung places in the country does not seem appropriate given the expansive reach and resources of the U.S. Marshals Service and the fact that so many justices choose to remain on the bench well into old age.”

Marshals Service spokesman Drew Wade said in an email the agency takes its responsibility for protection of federal judicial officials “very seriously. While we do not discuss our specific security measures, we continuously review the security measures in place for all federal judges and take appropriate steps to provide additional protection when it is warranted.”

The Supreme Court received $76 million in discretionary spending in fiscal 2017 for high court salaries and expenses, which includes security activities for the justices and the building. The court’s fiscal 2019 request seeks $84 million, in part to expand existing security activities.

“I think it would behoove Congress to find out how much it would cost for different levels of security,” Roth said, whether that be 24-hour, round-the-clock security when justices travel domestically, or just on certain trips to remote areas.

Recommendations

The Supreme Court Police handles protection for the justices in Washington and coordinates security when they travel abroad, Fix the Court said. But the Marshals Service, which is part of the Justice Department, picks up the security for domestic travel and is reimbursed by the court. 

Roth suggested changes to the service’s “policy directives” for the justices so that more contact information is required. Those directives state the agency will keep addresses and other contact information for the court members when they travel, but only “with the justices’ permission.” And the marshals will notify local law enforcement agencies that a justice will be temporarily in their jurisdiction “to the extent that the justice permits.”

“It’s having individuals charged with protecting and defending court officials know where they are, should an emergency arise,” Roth said. “I don’t think it should be up to the individual justice when local authorities are notified.”

Roth said the documents for 12 trips in July 2015 show the justices have different attitudes toward security. Sotomayor, for example, apparently requested protection when attending a theater performance in New York and Ginsburg sought guards for a night out at the opera. Roberts did not appear in any travel security requests, according to the documents obtained by Fix the Court, though it was unclear who sought security for two of the trips.

Scalia in Texas

Documents related to Scalia’s trip to Texas — which ended with his death that threw Washington into months of political drama — offer the starkest picture of how justices control their security.

Scalia initially did not ask for protection during the trip, but three days ahead of his departure he sought assistance while changing planes in Houston on Feb. 12, Roth found in the documents. The justice, who hunted for blue quail that afternoon, did not request security at the Cibolo Creek Ranch in the Big Bend region of West Texas.

The documents show it is highly likely that deputy marshals in the Western District of Texas, based in San Antonio, were not aware Scalia was in their district the weekend he died, Roth said. Deputies from the Southern District of Texas, based in Houston, helped with the airport transfer, and also did not inform local law enforcement of the justice’s stay, Roth said.

More details from the documents: A housekeeper got no response in Scalia’s suite the next morning. When people entered his room at 11 a.m., they found him unresponsive. The Marshals Service report states that marshals from the Western District of Texas were contacted by the local sheriff’s office at 12:41 p.m. They arrived at 2:38 p.m.

The marshals issued a statement that they responded immediately upon notification of Scalia’s death. In an email about that incident obtained by Fix the Court, one Marshals Service official commented to another: “Let’s hope it doesn’t grow legs.”

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