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Supreme Court officials are actively reviewing how justices are protected outside the Court building in the wake of the April 30 assault on Justice David Souter near his Washington, D.C., home. The policy review is taking place at the highest levels, sources at the Court say, though no official confirmation was forthcoming. “We don’t discuss security,” said spokeswoman Kathy Arberg. “I guarantee, it’s being looked at seriously,” says one Court police official who requested anonymity. “It may take a while for things to change, but the Souter thing has gotten everyone’s attention.” Souter was alone at night, without any police protection, when two youths hit him in the head and knocked him to the ground at a location between his home and his usual jogging grounds at a military base nearby. He was not robbed, but suffered minor injuries and was treated at a hospital and released. The 64-year-old justice was back on the bench Monday, with a darkened area under his jaw that could have been a bruise or an early 5 o’clock shadow. Souter has declined to discuss the incident or his injuries. The incident has revived a perennial debate that may seem quaint in the post-9/11 climate: whether justices require — or want — the kind of visible and constant security that some top executive and legislative branch officials get. Before and since 9/11, justices have rejected efforts by police and other court officials to step up security, opting to preserve their cherished autonomy instead. Two years ago, a group of Court police officers who argued for greater protection for the justices were rebuffed, with Supreme Court officials telling them that the justices did not want to change their current practices. “We are confident that our security people are quite aware of the sensitive times in which we live and the sensitive position the Court occupies,” Justice Anthony Kennedy told a House subcommittee at a March 17 hearing. “We are comfortable that we have adequate security.” At official functions in Washington, D.C., where their attendance is advertised, justices are usually accompanied by several uniformed and plainclothes Court police. Outside the District, local U.S. marshals provide security, though justices don’t always let the Marshals Service know their whereabouts. On trips abroad, a combination of U.S. marshals, American Embassy personnel, and local police provide security for justices. But when they are “off-duty” at home or elsewhere in the D.C. metropolitan area, justices still operate in many ways like average citizens, usually driving themselves and conducting their daily lives unaccompanied by Supreme Court police. Justices have their favorite lunch spots and places of worship and can be seen alone in a range of venues. Even Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has two officers assigned to him at all times, does not always make use of their services, one officer said this week. Souter also has long resisted additional security and does not carry a cell phone, according to a Court source. Long ago, he agreed to jog at Fort McNair, a secure facility near his home, but he apparently does not alert anyone there beforehand and does not seek protection between the base and his home. “They don’t want any more security,” says another officer. “They believe their best defense is that people don’t know who they are.” Indeed most justices can go unrecognized outside legal circles. The story is often told of the late Justice Harry Blackmun walking outside the Court to observe anti-abortion rallies in person, sure in the knowledge that the protesters would not realize that their nemesis, the author of Roe v. Wade, was standing in their midst. One exception to this general rule of anonymity may be Justice Clarence Thomas, possibly the Court’s most recognizable member. As a result, officers say Thomas avails himself of security details more often than other justices. But police officials say that with the advent of the Internet, where personal information is easily attainable, the justices’ anonymity is no longer an adequate shield. They also say many justices don’t take simple steps that could reduce their vulnerability. Several officers cite one justice whose car sports a vanity license plate that a moderately intelligent person could decipher as belonging to a Supreme Court justice. “They do what they want to do,” says one Court official. In addition, as the Souter episode demonstrated, as anonymous as they are, justices are not immune from the dangers of everyday life. In 1996, a robber snatched the purse of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she walked with her family at night in Georgetown. She was not injured, and most of what was in the purse was recovered. Officers say that security could be increased without significantly crimping the lifestyle of justices. “We could shadow them on foot, in a vehicle, or on a bike,” says one. Court officials in the past have cited cost as well as the justices’ penchant for privacy as factors in setting security policy. The Court prides itself on living with a lean budget. But the Court’s police force has expanded significantly since 9/11, with officers now making up more than one-fourth of the Court’s work force of 400. One of the main reasons for the $122 million renovation of the Court building currently under way is the creation of a central police station underground to accommodate the larger force. Officers say the 125-member force is adequate to provide significantly more security than justices now get or ask for. “The numbers are there,” says one officer. “It’s just a matter of scheduling, of deciding how to allocate the manpower.” The scheduling of officers is one matter under review in the aftermath of the Souter assault.

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