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When the Supreme Court goes hat in hand to Congress seeking approval of its budget, much more is on display than a discussion of how many new police officers the Court needs. It is a vignette of checks and balances and separation of powers in action. Two branches of government interact, each guarding its own prerogatives while respecting the other’s. Hands across the sea, Washington D.C.-style. So when Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas went before a House appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday, they and members of Congress celebrated the encounter. There were glancing references by House Members to Supreme Court and lower federal court decisions that have displeased Republicans in Congress lately, and both justices defended the judiciary’s independence, but even those moments did not deflate the cordial atmosphere of the hearing room. Kennedy described the budget session as “a tangible expression of abstract principles” of checks and balances, and said criticism of the courts is part of the process. “The give and take is very healthy.” Kennedy said judges in other nations — many of whom set their own budgets — marvel at the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court must undergo congressional scrutiny before winning approval for its budget. We wouldn’t want it any other way, Kennedy said. Likewise, House members seemed to revel in the exchange, as well as the media attention generated by the rare off-the-bench appearances of two Supreme Court justices. In the wake of a House committee reorganization earlier this year, several representatives were scrutinizing the Supreme Court budget for the first time, after years of doling out transportation money. More than one House member described the two-hour budget hearing as a “classroom,” responding to Kennedy’s tendency to turn questions into a civics discourse or a story about life at the Court. Among the things the House members — and the public — learned: � Justices are as worried as anyone else about the prospect of a vacancy and a new justice coming to the Court. Recounting the oft-repeated admonition of the late Justice Byron White, Kennedy said that whenever even one justice changes, “it becomes a completely different Court,” with different dynamics and personality. “There is a considerable amount of anxiety on the Court when there is a vacancy.” But Kennedy reassured House members that the ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist is “in good spirits” and “participates actively in the work of the Court” — including going over the Court’s budget proposal. � The Court is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. Kennedy made that clear when a congressman asked why the Supreme Court police force does not get merged into the much larger Capitol police department for the sake of economy. “Our Court would be clearly opposed,” said Kennedy. “Our officers know us.” Court police officers know the justices’ law clerks, he said, as well as where the justices live, how their front doors and back doors work — in other words, a level of familiarity that could not be maintained if Court police were part of a larger force. “We like our low profile,” Kennedy added. “We walk in the area and people don’t know what we look like. That’s fine.” � The Court’s information technology no longer lags behind the rest of government or the private sector, according to Justice Thomas, who has spearheaded the high-tech modernization. With the Court’s own intranet and other updates, Thomas said, justices can, for example, access clerks’ certiorari pool memos from anywhere. “The Court has really stepped up,” said Thomas. “I feel very good about where we are.” � The awe-inspiring walk up the marble steps in front of the Supreme Court will soon become forbidden, Kennedy said. As part of the Court’s extensive renovation currently underway, which includes security upgrades, the stairway entrance will become an exit only. The public instead will go into the Court from ground-level entrances on the left and right side of the stairs, passing through security screening in a fortified area. � At one point, the justices considered decamping from the Court building altogether during the renovation project, returning when the project is done. But after they were told that temporary relocation would be more costly, not less, the justices decided to stay while the renovation proceeds quadrant by quadrant. So far, only Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been dislocated by the project, temporarily shifting her chambers to another part of the building. And how necessary was the renovation? Kennedy said that the air-conditioning system in the 70-year-old building was so antiquated that “a man in West Virginia” is the only one who knows how it works anymore — and he is called back whenever something breaks. So warm were the inter-branch feelings at the hearing that when one House member asked how Kennedy and Thomas were picked to testify before the committee, Kennedy replied with a smile but without hesitation, “On merit.”

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