The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would extend police protection to the immediate families of Supreme Court justices, clearing the bill for President Biden at a time of rising concern about threats to justices as a potentially momentous abortion ruling looms.
The vote was 396 to 27, with all of the opposition coming from Democrats, who tried unsuccessfully to extend the protections to the families of court employees. The action sent the measure to Mr. Biden for his signature.
The legislation, already approved by the Senate early last month, moved quickly through the House in recent days after an armed man was arrested last week near the Maryland home of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. The man told police that he had intended to kill the justice because he was angry about a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that suggested the court was preparing to roll back abortion rights, and concerned that Justice Kavanaugh would vote to weaken gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
The draft abortion opinion has led to protests outside the homes of justices, and prompted police to erect a fence around the court building and take other steps to secure it.
“It is imperative that the justices are free from fear of violence or physical intimidation to make decisions based on the Constitution and law as applied to the facts of the case before them,” Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, said of the justices as he urged approval of the legislation. “This is essential to the rule of law.”
Though members of both parties strongly backed the legislation, it sparked bitter political recriminations when Republicans accused House Democrats of slow-walking it, trying to intimidate the justices and failing to take seriously the threat to members of the court and their families.
“It should not have been this hard or taken this long,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, said on Tuesday. “It should not have taken a threat against Justice Kavanaugh to force action.”
Democrats said they wanted to add protection for clerks and other workers at the court who might also be at risk of violence, but Republicans said that would be onerous and was unnecessary because the workers are relatively little known to the public. Senate Republicans said they would oppose the measure if the House expanded it.
“That could include round-the-clock security details for everyone from clerks to IT staff and their spouses, children, siblings and parents,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and an author of the legislation along with Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. Mr. Cornyn called the House’s position a stalling tactic.
But Democrats said the identities of some personnel at the court besides the justices have been publicly disclosed and that they merited the same consideration as the justices and their families. After the draft abortion decision leaked last month, there was much public speculation about whether specific clerks could be to blame.
Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, charged that Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, and Mr. Cornyn were either in “ignorance of the facts, or ignoring the facts” by suggesting that clerks and employees of the Supreme Court were not public figures and did not face the same level of threats.
He added that he had been informed of violent threats made against employees, but he said House Democratic leaders would relent and pass the Senate measure so it could be quickly sent to the president.
“Nobody doesn’t want to protect the justices of the Supreme Court,” Mr. Hoyer said.
The justices currently have security details, and the man who threatened the life of Justice Kavanaugh was deterred by the presence of U.S. marshals near the justice’s house. But backers of the legislation said it was necessary to make it clear that family members could also receive protection and align the security for justices and their families more with that provided to members of Congress and the executive branch, who have regular police protection.
The court is expected sometime in the next few weeks to hand down its decision in a Mississippi abortion case, and a draft opinion published by Politico on May 2 suggested that a majority of the court was prepared to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, a decision that is expected to prompt a strong reaction and protests.
Threats against judges at all levels have been rising, and the safety of judges and their families has been getting increased attention after a series of attacks, most recently the murder this month of a retired Wisconsin state judge who was killed by a man he had sentenced, who police said was targeting other public officials as well.
Following the murder of her son and wounding of her husband in 2020 by a lawyer who had appeared before her, U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas of New Jersey has pushed for legislation that would protect the privacy of federal judges by keeping personal information such as addresses out of databases and off the internet. The gunman, who later killed himself, had targeted Judge Salas at her home.
The measure has the backing of the federal judiciary and bipartisan support in Congress, but has stalled over attempts by Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, to extend the privacy protections to lawmakers — a step that many of his colleagues are reluctant to take. Watchdog groups also contend the legislation is too broad. Backers of the measure hoped the attention on the Supreme Court protection bill would boost the legislation, but it remains tied up.
Despite criticism of Democrats, Republicans credited them with agreeing to ultimately pass the legislation.
“The good news is finally this bill is going to pass and give the justices of the highest court in our land the protection they and their families deserve,” Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said. “Better late than never.”
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