Who protects David Souter?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 3 2004 5:18 PM

Who Protects David Souter?

Do Supreme Court justices have bodyguards?

Justice Souter: Jogging solo
Justice Souter: Jogging solo

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.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.