Supreme Court’s travel controversy: Did justices risk their lives to overturn Roe?

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In May 2022, the leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization signaling the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade led to an onslaught of violence and threats against pro-lifers and the Supreme Court justices. As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned of potential threats to the justices, some of those justices accepted private flights and made other decisions that are now painted as “unethical” by critics.

Those critics say that Justice Clarence Thomas in particular is ‘blaming abortion’ for his allegedly misguided travel decisions. Reports show, however, that the justices really did put their safety and lives on the line to overturn Roe and allow states to pass laws protecting preborn human beings. Whether or not all of their private travel arrangements were ethical is still being debated, but the fact is, the safety of the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe was — and still could be — at risk.

Threats and violence begin

On May 18, 2022, 16 days after the draft opinion was leaked, CNN reported that the DHS had warned of potential threats to the public and the Supreme Court in response to the leaked draft opinion. There were threats of burning down or storming the U.S. Supreme Court, said CNN, as well as threats of homicide against the justices and their clerks.

In a memo, the DHS explained that “domestic violence extremists and criminal actors have adopted narratives surrounding abortion rights to encourage violence, likely increasing the threat to government, religious, and reproductive healthcare personnel and facilities and ideological opponents.”

It also noted, “Going forward, grievances related to restricting abortion access could fuel violence by pro-choice abortion-related violent extremists and other DVEs (domestic violent extremists).”

In fact, on June 8, 2022, a man with a gun and a knife was detained by police near the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The man, Nicholas John Roske, had made threats against Kavanaugh and was charged with attempted murder. Roske admitted he was “upset” by the leaked draft opinion in Dobbs.

Many people wondered: would the justices backtrack, change their minds, and uphold Roe in light of the threats against them? On June 24, 2022, the answer to that question came when the final opinion was handed down and Roe was indeed overturned.

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – JUNE 27: U.S. Marshals stand guard as abortion rights protesters demonstrate outside Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s home on June 27, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia. The court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health overturned the landmark 50-year-old Roe v Wade case and erased a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The violence was only beginning

According to a study from the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC), 135 attacks were perpetrated against pro-life groups between May 2022 and September 2022. By November of 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray was testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that about 70% of abortion-related violence and threats since the Dobbs decision had been carried out against pro-life groups.

“The bottom line is that after the Dobbs decision was leaked, there was over 22 times more violence directed against pro-life groups than pro-choice organizations,” the CPRC noted. “However, if the media is less likely to cover violence [against] pro-life organizations, the 22 times estimate will underestimate the relative violence against these groups.”

CatholicVote, a political advocacy organization, tracked the attacks and recorded at least 186 against churches and 88 against PRCs and other pro-life groups since the leak. Pro-abortion group Jane’s Revenge, for example, threatened (emphasis added):

To all the conservatives, Fox News anchors, judges, cops, Christian extremists, or federal agents reading this:

This attack is nothing in comparison to what is in store for you. Some spray paint will be the least of your worries.

… We will hunt you down and make your lives a living hell. You started this war but we will win it. So far its just been pregnancy crisis centers, but tomorrow it might be your cars, your homes, or even your lives.

Supreme Court police had even noticed an increase in social media threats of violence, with more than two dozen being put under investigation. Protests took place outside the homes of several justices — actions the White House never condemned. In addition, a CNN source explained that law enforcement was seeing “foreign and domestic threat actors call for violence directed at SCOTUS, clerks….”

CHEVY CHASE, MARYLAND – JUNE 29: Abortion rights activists with Our Rights DC march in front of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house on June 29, 2022 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Over the last couple months, abortion rights activists have staged protests against the five conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justices. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health case overturned the 50-year-old Roe v Wade case and erased federal protection to abortion. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Protecting the justices

In a 2022 letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, lawmakers called for stronger protections for the Supreme Court justices from groups such as Jane’s Revenge, which was calling for additional rioting.

“Over the past few weeks, in the wake of the unprecedented leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion, there has been a disturbing rise in threats against Supreme Court justices and the Court itself. Justices have had their address published online, have been subjected to illegal pressure campaigns at their family homes, and one Justice was even the victim of an attempted assassination,” the letter stated.

In response to the increase in threats, an eight-foot non-scalable fence was put up around the Supreme Court building, and the Metropolitan Police Department activated its Civil Disturbance Unit through May 20 following the leaked draft opinion.

Given all of this, it seems obvious that the justices who overturned Roe did put their safety on the line and did have cause for concern that could have caused them to seek out secret travel arrangements.

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