As justices weigh healthcare decision, lawmakers bolster high court security

As Congress continues to look for ways to cut costs to lower the national deficit, one place where lawmakers are refusing to scrimp is security for the Supreme Court.

Congressional appropriators ponied up nearly $1 million in fiscal 2012 to hire 12 new Supreme Court police officers after justices reported receiving a significant number of threats.


Security for the high court has been back in the news as the justices deliberate whether President Obama’s healthcare law is constitutional. Supporters and critics of the healthcare overhaul held protests in front of the Supreme Court last week.

In April 2010, Justice Clarence Thomas told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the court required greater security due to the “volume” of threats it receives, claiming that its security personnel ideally wanted 24 new officers.

Thomas said he recognized the ongoing fiscal constraints the government was operating under, however, and sought funding for 12 officers.

But the funds Thomas requested for new officers were not allocated in fiscal 2011, according to Court Public Information Officer Kathleen Arberg. During fiscal 2012 budget hearings the following year, Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy reiterated the need for additional court security.

“We have eight acres of grounds which have to be protected, and a number of our officers now have to spend time learning about cybersecurity threats and so forth,” Kennedy told lawmakers in April 2011.

“We need — actually, our people said we needed 25, and the chief justice and the staff went over it — and we can live with the 12 [additional officers],” he added. “We do consider the 12 urgent.”

Though the justices did not report significant increases in threats made against the court during the prior year, the recent shooting death of one of their judicial colleagues illustrated the need for bolstered security measures.

House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government subcommittee Chairwoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) questioned the justices on how the January 2011 Arizona shooting that seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six, including U.S. District Judge John Roll, affected Supreme Court security.

“Chief Judge John Roll was one of the fine judges in the United States system … And that shooting left his wife, Maureen, and three children,” Kennedy said. “Our judges are among the most dedicated, principled public servants in the world, and it is urgent for the Congress to make provisions so that we can continue to attract to our bench practitioners who are pre-eminent in the practicing bar.”

According to a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, the Supreme Court was thereafter allocated $898,000 to provide for the hiring of the additional officers.

“The entire increase from the FY 2011 appropriation of $73,921,000 to the FY 2012 appropriation of $74,819,000 was for the additional 12 police,” Arberg noted. “This $898,000 increase includes $518,000 for personnel compensation, $140,000 for related benefits and $240,000 for additional support expenses such as training, supplies and equipment.”

Congress had already shown a willingness to bolster security in the wake of the Tucson shooting.

The budget for the U.S. Capitol Police force, responsible for ensuring lawmaker security both within Washington and in district offices across the country, has been left relatively intact when compared with steep cuts in other government agencies last year.

The need for additional security for the Supreme Court has only intensified in recent months.

In February, an intruder wielding a machete broke into Breyer’s West Indies vacation home. The justice and his guests were unharmed, but the robber reportedly made off with about $1,000 in cash.

And just last week, hundreds of protesters and the national media descended on the court’s front steps as the justices heard three days of arguments regarding Obama’s healthcare law.

Arberg would not comment on how many threats the court received during the high-profile hearings and subsequent deliberation for what has been dubbed “the case of the century.” She did note that the court’s police officers were fully prepared and able to deal with the onslaught of both visitors and protesters.

But while the court was able to recently hire the 12 additional officers, its security force is still operating below full staffing levels.

According to Arberg, the court is authorized for 157 officers, but currently employs 152. Only one full-time employee is designated to conduct threat assessments, a number Thomas had previously sought to increase.

“We are going to upgrade that because of the volume [of threats],” Thomas told House appropriators in 2010. “I emphasize the word ‘needs.’ We do not look at this as wants or a wish list.”