The House passed a bill guaranteeing security arrangements for the families of Supreme Court justices Tuesday, sending it to President Biden, after Democratic leaders stepped back from a brewing partisan fight over protection for the high court amid a rising spate of threats.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered the unusual public ultimatum Monday night. “The security issue is related to the Supreme Court justices, not to nameless staff that no one knows,” he told reporters in a rare Capitol hallway interview.
Democrats changed course hours later. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that the reversal was warranted because the Senate bill is “the only thing that can pass, frankly, and we want to get it done.”
All 27 House votes against the bill were from Democrats — including a majority of the New Jersey delegation, who protested the lack of protections for lower-court judges and their families. An aggrieved litigant murdered the son and wounded the husband of a New Jersey federal judge in July 2020.
“We fully support expanding security for Supreme Court Justices and their families,” the six N.J. Democrats said in a statement. “We believe that Congress had a strong opportunity to improve protections for all federal judges, but the Senate abdicated its responsibility when it ignored our calls for the inclusion”
More than 20 liberals also voted against the measure, citing that the Supreme Court marshal can extend protections to whomever they deem fit in the judicial orbit and that many communities across the country are not granted the same security such as abortion care providers to gun violence survivors.
“I think that it is just preposterous how quickly this body will move to protect itself, and how slowly we move to protect children and people in grocery stores,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said. “I’m very concerned about the message that this sends to people.”
Republicans lambasted the 27 Democrats who voted against the bill, with Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) calling the act “ludicrous and shameful.”
The episode has illustrated how nasty and partisan virtually any issue dealing with the high court has become in American politics — especially after the leak last month of a draft opinion indicating that justices are preparing to overturn the decision granting the right to an abortion.
The Senate passed its Supreme Court security bill on May 5, days after the draft abortion opinion was leaked. But the House did not act on it, instead exploring a broader bill.
Matters came to a head last week after a 26-year-old armed California man was arrested outside the Maryland home of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. The man, Nicholas Roske, told police that he had come intending to assassinate Kavanaugh because of the leaked abortion opinion but called 911 and surrendered after spotting U.S. Marshals guarding Kavanaugh’s home.
As the incident illustrated, the justices are already entitled to round-the-clock security, and court employees can be protected as warranted. But federal law does not provide for the protection of immediate family members.
Roske’s arrest turbocharged the politics around the court security legislation on Capitol Hill, prompting McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to lambaste Democrats for not voting on the Senate bill.
McCarthy said in floor remarks Tuesday that passing the narrower bill would send “a clear message to the left-wing radicals: You cannot intimidate the Supreme Court justices.”
“It should not have taken a threat against Justice Kavanaugh to force action,” he said. “I’m glad it will be heading to the president’s desk without any poison pills to delay it further.”
But Democratic leaders expressed puzzlement at the GOP position, arguing that employees’ families ought to be entitled to protection, as well, at the discretion of the Supreme Court marshal, its top security officer.
After the leak of the draft abortion opinion, the names of law clerks whom some observers suspected of being the leaker circulated in internet forums and some fringe news sites. Some Democrats have privately speculated that Republicans do not want to protect staffers’ families because many on the political right believe that a liberal clerk leaked the draft abortion opinion, though no evidence has emerged to support that allegation.
Asked Monday why Republicans wanted to omit staff families from the bill, McConnell said House Democrats were taking “an unnecessary shot at sending a message about how proud they were that something leaked over at the Supreme Court.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who co-wrote the Senate bill with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), said: “People know who the Supreme Court members are. They don’t know who the staff is.”
“All we’re trying to do is give the justices the very same protection that’s available to members of Congress,” he added, saying Democrats were “playing with fire.”
Meanwhile, some see GOP support for expanding security for justices’ families not only as a reaction to the leak of the draft abortion opinion but as a gesture of support for Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, whose role in spreading misinformation about the 2020 presidential election has recently been publicized.
Hoyer said Tuesday that he did not know why, despite a month of negotiations, Republicans opposed adding staff families to the security legislation. “But it is what it is,” he said, “and we’re going to move the bill.”
Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the entire New Jersey House delegation voted for the bill. A majority of the delegation voted in favor. This version has been updated.