U.S. Supreme Court

Security may be lacking for Supreme Court justices, watchdog group says

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Justice Antonin Scalia.

The day Justice Antonin Scalia died, the deputy U.S. marshals charged with protecting him weren’t nearby, and they didn’t know his health was poor, according to the U.S. Supreme Court watchdog group Fix the Court.

Thanks to a two-year-old Freedom of Information Act request, Fix the Court—which advocates for transparency at the high court—published 380 documents March 14 about the security measures in place for the justices. Those include a document outlining the U.S. Marshals Service policy for protecting the justices; information about the day of Scalia’s death; and information about July 2015 travel by several justices.

Fix the Court says it’s a problem that justices may decline protection during domestic travel, as Scalia did just before his death. That’s not the case for other high-ranking U.S. officials, the organization’s press release. notes, and poses special problems for those who’ve been threatened or whose health is not good.

“The public should be confident that Supreme Court justices are well-protected, both inside their building and when they venture out into the world,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said in the press release. “I don’t want to wait for another tragedy to occur to ensure that more comprehensive protection is in place.”

U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Drew Wade told Roll Call that the service takes its obligation to protect the judiciary 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,” he said in an email.

The documents that pertain to security during Scalia’s final days say the justice had originally turned down any assistance at all, then agreed to it during his layovers at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport. There, Scalia got on a private plane that took him to Cibolo Creek Ranch, as the National Law Journal also reported. He was found unresponsive at 11 a.m. the next day.

Fix the Court says the FOIA documents say someone at the ranch tried to reach federal authorities. After that didn’t succeed, they called the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, which initially declined to get the U.S. Marshals involved but eventually called the Pecos office of the service, 134 miles away. It took two hours for deputy marshals to arrive. Documents provided to Fix the Court suggest that the service was worried about criticism over that response time. The watchdog group says it’s likely that the local U.S. Marshals office wasn’t aware that Scalia was in its district.

Other documents provided by the U.S. Marshals track the security needs of justices who traveled in July of 2015. Because the names of the justices were redacted, Fix the Court was able to identify only some of those in the documents. They show redacted threats for trips taken by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both of whom have requested protection from deputy marshals when visiting public places. (Justice John Paul Stevens also traveled that month, to give a speech at the International Human Rights Award luncheon of the ABA’s Section of Litigation, but he did not request protection.)

Fix the Court says it originally requested records of all 2015 travel by the justices, but narrowed it to the month of July because of the high price of documents for the entire year. Its FOIA request was filed in June of 2016 and a lawsuit to compel production was filed in October of 2017. When the service produced the documents March 9, it said it was withholding 41 pages it believes are not appropriate to release; Fix the Court says it hasn’t decided whether to sue for those.

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