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Opinion Supreme Court justices should be able to feel safe at home

Law enforcement officers stand guard at Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s house on June 8. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
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A man traveled this past week from California to the Montgomery County home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, allegedly with plans to kill the jurist and then himself. Authorities said he was dressed in black clothes and carrying a backpack and suitcase that contained a knife, a Glock 17 pistol, ammunition, zip ties, pepper spray and other items. He (thankfully) did not carry out his plan but instead called 911 and turned himself in. It appears mental health issues were at play, but there is little doubt that the presence of two deputy U.S. marshals stationed outside Justice Kavanaugh’s home was a big reason the man broke off his planned attack.

The frightening incident in Wednesday’s early hours prompted Republicans to point out that the Senate approved last month a bill to enhance Supreme Court justices’ security, permitting federal officers to protect justices’ families as well as court officers themselves, but that the House has yet to pass anything. A leaked draft court opinion that, if formally issued, would overturn Roe v. Wade has ratcheted up concerns about court safety. So Republicans insist that Democrats must move quickly. House Democrats appear determined to pass a bill but are pausing to consider whether court clerks should get similar protection.

Democrats are right to weigh giving court officials the flexibility to order protection for justices, their families, clerks, clerks’ families or anyone else who might require security because of their relationship with the court. For that matter, they should look at extending protection to lower-court officials, too. But they cannot take long. The Senate bill has already languished in the House for a month. Their time is up.

Federal lawmakers are not the only ones with a responsibility to help safeguard the judiciary. That duty also lies with those who have protested outside Justice Kavanaugh’s house in advance of the coming abortion rights ruling. No matter how passionately activists feel about an issue — and we believe strongly that overturning Roe would be a disastrous mistake — these feelings do not justify invading public officials’ private lives and those of their families.

This is especially true for judges. Respect for the institution of the court, the rule of law and the orderly adjudication of public matters demands that protests, no matter how justified, stay in the public square. Otherwise, activists on any side of any issue — be it voting rights or minority protections or environmental rules — could use protest to intimidate judges. Judges must be expected — and also given the space — to make their best determinations based on deep thinking, rationality and the law, not without regard for the public reaction, but at least without worry that their families will be besieged.

Sometimes justices will fail in this charge. But the court’s work will be neither summed up nor finished with a single ruling. The institution must be able to function — and, eventually, right itself — as it considers a vast array of controversial disputes in which the public should want levelheaded jurists who are unafraid to go home at night.