The Supreme Court’s chief security officer penned letters requesting that top Maryland and Virginia officials direct police to enforce laws that she says prohibit picketing at justices’ suburban homes, following weeks of demonstrations for abortion rights.
It was unclear, however, what impact the letters will have. Some officials argued that federal law enforcement should respond to the court’s concerns, while others cast the directive as unconstitutional. Police officials said they worked to keep justices safe while respecting the First Amendment rights of demonstrators. And protesters responded directly Saturday with an impromptu demonstration outside Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s home in Chevy Chase.
Supreme Court Marshal Gail Curley, in four separate letters addressed to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey McKay (D), said protests and “threatening” activity had increased since May at the justices’ homes.
“For weeks on end, large groups of protesters chanting slogans, using bullhorns, and banging drums have picketed Justices’ homes in Maryland,” her letter to Hogan said. “Earlier this week, for example, 75 protesters loudly picketed at one Justice’s home in Maryland for 20-30 minutes in the evening, then proceeded to picket at another Justice’s home for 30 minutes, where the crowd grew to 100, and finally returned to the first Justice’s home to picket for another 20 minutes. This is exactly the kind of conduct that the Maryland and Montgomery County laws prohibit.”
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The marshal cited Maryland law, which states that a “person may not intentionally assemble with another in a manner that disrupts a person’s right to tranquility in the person’s home” and that law “provides for imprisonment for up to 90 days or a $100 fine.”
The Maryland letters, reviewed by The Washington Post and dated July 1, also cite a Montgomery County law that says a “person or group of persons must not picket in front of or adjacent to any private residence,” as well as a law that says a group can march in a residential area “without stopping at any particular private residence.”
But Michael Ricci, Hogan’s director of communications, pushed back against Curley in a response Saturday afternoon on Twitter. “Had the marshal taken time to explore the matter, she would have learned that the constitutionality of the statute cited in her letter has been questioned by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office,” he wrote.
Ricci noted that Hogan and Youngkin had written previously to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland “to enforce the clear and unambiguous federal statutes on the books that prohibit picketing at judges’ residences.” Garland declined, Ricci said.
“In light of the continued refusal by multiple federal entities to act, the governor has directed Maryland State Police to further review enforcement options that respect the First Amendment and the Constitution,” he wrote.
Elrich, meanwhile, said in a statement that his office “does not have any record of having received” the letter from Curley.
“This public discussion regarding safety and security of Supreme Court members is counterproductive, and using the media only further draws attention to the security of the Justices’ homes and neighborhoods,” he said. “Quite frankly, discussing security concerns publicly is irresponsible and disappointing behavior.”
Elrich said Montgomery County is following the law “that provides security and respects the First Amendment rights of protesters.”
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Nadine Seiler, a Maryland resident, was among the 75 protesters referenced in the marshal’s letter to Hogan, after they had demonstrated Wednesday outside the homes of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Kavanaugh. She said the protest groups that go out on a weekly basis are normally as small as 15 people, but this week’s crowd swelled because of the court’s overturning of abortion protections under Roe v. Wade.
Police have handed out documentation of the protest laws, and to maintain them, protesters walk in a single-file line up a sidewalk without stopping in front of any specific home, Seiler said.
“We are within the law,” she said. “They’re proving us right — that we need to be out there to maintain our First Amendment right, or else we wouldn’t have it.”
The letters to Youngkin and McKay were released by the court Saturday. Christian Martinez, a Youngkin spokesperson, said in a statement that Youngkin “agrees with the Marshal that the threatening activity outside the Justices’ homes has increased” and that the governor is in regular contact with the justices.
The statement said the governor made a request of Chairman McKay of Fairfax to “enforce state law as they are the primary enforcement authority” for the law. He also said Garland should “do his job” in enforcing federal law.
“Every resource of federal law enforcement, including the U.S. Marshalls, should be involved while the Justices continue to be denied the right to live peacefully in their homes,” Martinez said.
But Fairfax County officials diverged. McKay said in a statement that the law cited in Curley’s letter “is a likely violation of the First Amendment.” In a statement, the Fairfax County Police Department said its Civil Disturbance Unit is “trained to help crowds that gather to express their views and are well versed on the laws that govern these planned gatherings.” The county is home to one retired and three sitting justices, police said.
“As long as individuals are assembling on public property and not blocking access to private residences, they are permitted to be there,” McKay said.
A spokesperson for Garland did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday night.
Abortion rights advocates had originally taken to the streets outside the justices’ houses after the draft of an opinion by the Supreme Court signaling that it planned to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked to Politico in May. Protesters continued gathering outside the homes again in June when the 49-year-old decision that guaranteed a person’s constitutional right to abortion was officially overturned.
Following the release of the leaked draft, but before the court issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a California man was arrested near Kavanaugh’s home in Chevy Chase and charged with attempting to kill a judge. Nicholas Roske is accused of flying to Maryland with a gun and burglary tools with plans to break into Kavanaugh’s home to kill him. Roske has pleaded not guilty.
“Maryland and Montgomery County laws provide the tools to prevent picketing activity at the Justices’ homes, and they should be enforced without delay,” said one of the letters from Curley, who is also leading the investigation into the Politico leak.
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The ongoing demonstrations outside justices’ homes have sparked legal debate over whether laws banning picketing outside of the private homes of judges are constitutional.
“The Montgomery County Department of Police is committed to preserving the first amendment rights of all individuals wishing to participate in peaceful, lawful, protest and assembly,” the department website says. It also links to a list of protest laws “to assist in educating the community,” including those cited in the Supreme Court marshal’s letters.
“Peaceful, lawful protest and assembly is a cornerstone of our democracy,” the online document reads.
In the letter addressed to Elrich, Curley said a request was made in May to the county police department about enforcing the Montgomery County ordinance. Elrich said he spoke with Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones, who was “not aware of any requests for additional security assistance.”
A group of no more than 20 people marched down the sidewalk outside Kavanaugh’s home Saturday afternoon while reading the First Amendment in unison, with some beating makeshift drums and holding signs for abortion rights. About 20 law enforcement officers lined the front lawn of the justice’s home, staring ahead.
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” the group read aloud.
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Michelle Peterson, an organizer with Our Rights DC, said the group held the demonstration in direct response to the letters from the marshal. The protests are meant to give people in the community an opportunity to “express our grievances directly,” fellow organizer Sadie Kuhns said.
“It’s for us to express what they do to us,” Kuhns said. Protesters chanted “Our rights are not up for debate,” and “No privacy for us, no peace for you.”
Some homes had yard signs reading, “Chevy Chasers for choice,” and a neighbor passing by the group nodded to them and said, “Keep it up.” But after about 30 minutes of marching, chanting and reading the First Amendment, protesters outside Kavanaugh’s home decided there was only one thing left to do: dance.
From a loudspeaker, the group headed home to the lyrics of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin.