By Russell Berman - 04/15/10 04:00 PM EDT
The Supreme Court is asking for more federal security funds, citing as one reason the “volume” of threats it receives.
Justice Clarence Thomas told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday that the court wants money for 12 additional police officers, although security personnel want 24 ideally. Thomas said the court was considering the nation’s broader fiscal difficulties in asking for only 12.
“We are going to upgrade that because of the volume,” Thomas said in testimony on the Supreme Court’s annual budget request. The justice was responding to a question from Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who cited recent incidents in which individuals have targeted federal buildings, including IRS offices.
Members of Congress have also come under threats since President Barack Obama signed the healthcare bill into law. Members of both parties, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican House Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), have been targeted. As the hearing proceeded, U.S. Capitol Police were stepping up their presence around the Capitol in preparation for a large Tea Party rally planned to coincide with Tax Day.
Thomas said the court was making the request “with some reluctance” but that the court’s security personnel felt a strong need after conducting a review. The review came after the justices were asked specifically about security needs at last year’s funding hearing.
Most of the new officers would be used to secure areas of the court building and grounds that will be newly opened to the public following completion of its renovation.
“We understand this is a period of austerity,” Thomas said in outlining the court’s $77 million overall budget request, which included an increase of 5 percent from the previous year.
“I emphasize the word ‘needs,’ ” he said. “We do not look at this as wants or a wish list.”
Thomas, a member of the court’s conservative wing since his appointment in 1991, has become a regular presence at the annual appropriations hearing, ever since former Chief Justice William Rehnquist first asked him to represent the court during the 1990s.
“I may well be the longest-serving member of this committee,” he quipped at the outset of his testimony. “Maybe I’ll get off for good time, or good behavior.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, a member of the court’s liberal wing, appeared alongside Thomas. The justices discussed a range of issues related to the federal judiciary, with the notable exception of any actual cases, which the lawmakers recognized as off limits.
At one point, Thomas became involved in a tense exchange with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who pressed the justice on the lack of diversity among the Supreme Court’s prestigious clerkships.
Lee, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, asked if the court had made any effort to attract clerks from minority groups and particularly from law schools outside of the Ivy League. Thomas responded that while he looks for clerks from a wide range of schools, the justices start from a pool of candidates that have clerked for other federal appellate courts.
Within that pool, Thomas said, “Hispanics and blacks do not show up in any great numbers.”
When Lee asked how the justices could increase the pool, Thomas demurred. “I don’t think it’s up to us to increase the pool,” he said.
The answer did not satisfy Lee, who brought up Thomas’s votes against affirmative action during his time on the bench.
“What’s in the pool has to do unfortunately with some of your decisions on the Supreme Court that have really shut out any people of color in some of these institutions,” she said. Thomas did not respond directly, but he voiced support for having a staff that reflected a broad range of experiences and regions.
The lawmakers asked Thomas and Breyer for their opinions as to why the high court has accepted fewer cases in recent years.
Thomas said there could be a number of reasons, but that Congress, in an indirect way, was partly to blame. “Until recently, there hasn’t been comprehensive legislation of the kind that usually fills our docket,” he said.
That prompted Breyer to make a guess: “I’d predict that three, four years from today, no one’s going to ask us again why we have so few cases,” he said, in an apparent reference to the just-passed healthcare overhaul and other comprehensive measures pending on Capitol Hill.
Breyer was also asked by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) about the prospect of opening the high court to cameras for the first time. The justice backed a pilot program for cameras in lower federal courts, but he said it would take a while before a “comfort level” is reached to allow Supreme Court proceedings to be televised.
“How to get to that comfort level is going to be a long, complicated matter,” he said. “Eventually we’ll get to the comfort level, but we’re not there yet.”
He warned that once cameras are allowed in, “there’s no going back.”
Schiff replied that the only way the justices would reach that point of comfort would be “by taking the plunge.”
The discussion of cameras in the courtroom also provided for one of the hearing’s lighter moments.
Subcommittee Chairman José Serrano (D-N.Y.) noted that one argument against allowing cameras would be that the justices’ remarks could be taken out of context in the overheated atmosphere of cable news.
“Did you hear Breyer? What a jerk! Did you hear what question he asked? Did you hear Thomas? Oh my god!” Serrano said, doing his best imitation of an MSNBC or Fox News talk show.
At that point, Thomas, who has a well-known reputation for never asking questions during Supreme Court oral arguments, replied, “No, you mean you didn’t hear me.” The room erupted in laughter.
This story was posted at 12 p.m. and updated at 7:15 p.m.