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Supreme Court justices make their own security choices, documents reveal

Todd Ruger, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- 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 and U.S. Marshals Service 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.

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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."

The Supreme Court received $76 million in discretionary spending in fiscal 2017 (PL 115-31) 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.


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