Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was attacked by several youths on Friday night, as he jogged near his Washington, D.C., home. Who’s responsible for protecting the justices from physical harm, and why weren’t they shadowing Justice Souter during his run?
Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the U.S. Secret Service, whose protectees include a galaxy of other Beltway power players, has nothing to do with the court personnel. Instead, the task of safeguarding the nine justices falls to the Supreme Court Police, a 125-person force that’s also charged with securing the court building and grounds. Though the court has long had security guards, a separate police department wasn’t formally created by Congress until 1949. However, the law that set up the force specified that the officers’ duties should consist solely of patrolling the Supreme Court building and its surroundings. The Supreme Court cops were not authorized to carry guns or to make arrests outside of their tiny Washington jurisdiction. If a justice required or requested a bodyguard, they were either provided with a federal marshal or a member of the Supreme Court Police was temporarily deputized as a marshal.
In May of 1982, however, then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, citing a rise in “terrorist activities, assassination attempts, and street crime,” asked Congress to give Supreme Court Police officers more marshallike powers. Burger’s cause received an important boost that July, when Justice Byron White was assaulted as he delivered a speech to the Utah Bar Association. The only security personnel present were employees of the hotel where the address was taking place, and audience members had to come to White’s rescue. (The attacker, a 57-year-old man from Kaysville, Utah, screamed “Busing and pornography don’t go!” as he slugged the justice; White, who had been a star tailback at the University of Colorado, finished his speech, quipping, “I’ve been hit harder than that before in Utah.”)
Congress swiftly heeded Burger’s wishes, and since then Supreme Court Police officers have been available to guard the justices wherever they may roam. However, when the justices travel around the country, they are sometimes protected by federal marshals rather than Supreme Court cops. Whether a marshal is assigned in lieu of a Supreme Court Police officer depends on the staffing situation at the court building and on who is arranging the trip—if it’s another branch of the government, they’ll usually provide a marshal or two.
As the Souter assault makes clear, of course, the Supreme Court Police aren’t exactly omnipresent bodyguards. A court spokeswoman refused to tell Slatethe particulars of when and why a justice can decline protection. But if the force’s rules are anything like those of the Secret Service (which are explained here), it’s likely the justice’s personal prerogative as to when they’d like a bodyguard and when they’d prefer to be left alone.
Bonus Explainer: The Supreme Court Police boasts one the highest entry-level salaries among Washington, D.C.’s myriad law-enforcement entities. A freshly minted Supreme Court cop can make as much as $46,653, compared to under $30,000 for someone starting off at the NIH Police Branch.