Supreme Court Seeks Money for More Officers

Posted April 12, 2005 at 6:15pm

The Supreme Court is seeking to bolster its law enforcement capabilities, asserting that additional officers are needed to deter terrorist acts and evaluate threats made against individual justices.

Testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas outlined the court’s $60.7 million fiscal 2006 budget request, a $3.4 million increase from its current funding level.

“I’ve always thought we’ve been unrealistic about our security needs,” Thomas told the subcommittee on Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, and the District of Columbia.

The court is seeking $639,000 to provide its law enforcement agency with an additional 11 officers, including one employee designated as a “threat assessment officer.”

The remaining officers would be used to staff an additional position on the Supreme Court’s Front Plaza, which is situated across First Street Northeast from the Capitol, as well as an additional patrol slot.

“The additional officer on the Front Plaza and on patrol in the vicinity of the Court will assist in the control of crowds and enable the observation of suspicious surveillance activity that often precedes terrorist incidents,” Kennedy stated in his written testimony.

The new positions would also provide more flexibility for the agency to train other officers, including education on technologies that “are geared to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical response,” Kennedy wrote.

Although the court’s police department has conducted its own threat assessments in recent years, Thomas said the responsibility has been handled by two or three officers at any time.

“It has to be more specific. A person has to be dedicated to do that work,” Thomas asserted, later stating: “There is a reason to have people assessing threat. I think we have been on borrowed time for a long time.”

The justices declined to provide specific information about threats against the court, but Kennedy noted: “We learn of threats in different ways, often in letters.”

The justice added that many of the letters are penned by “unbalanced individuals,” including a handful of recent cases, but he said he is also concerned about those individuals who could construct “rational plans to disrupt the court.”

In his written testimony, Kennedy also pointed to new safety concerns that have arisen following recent violent incidents in Chicago and Atlanta, including the murder of one judge’s husband and mother, and a courthouse shooting, respectively.

“These terrible crimes show the dangers that judges face at all levels in carrying out their constitutional duties,” commented Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), the subcommittee’s chairman.

Despite the court’s desire to boost its security measures, Kennedy, responding to an inquiry from Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), said he would oppose merging the police department with the significantly larger 1,600-officer Capitol Police force.

While the two agencies are often in contact, Kennedy said the small size of the court’s police department provides a “tremendous advantage” for the justices and other employees who work in the building.

According to the justices, the court is currently staffed by approximately 40 officers during the day, as well as a smaller patrol of about a dozen officers during the evening.

During the hearing the justices also addressed the ongoing modernization of the Supreme Court building, noting the $122 million project is “on schedule and within budget.”