Sometimes you watch a congressional hearing, and you just know something is bound for Fox News’s primetime airwaves.
Such was the case when it was Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) turn to speak at a Supreme Court ethics hearing Tuesday. The Judiciary Committee hearing was held in light of recent reports involving undisclosed luxury trips taken by Justice Clarence Thomas and paid for by a billionaire GOP donor.
Hawley used his time with the microphone to accuse Democrats of effectively threatening to withhold security funding from the Supreme Court if the court doesn’t do what the Democrats want on ethics.
It was a highly speculative and circumstantial case that Hawley nonetheless presented as fact. And Democrats quickly denied it.
Hawley cited a month-old letter from 15 Senate Democrats to the top Republican and Democrat on a subcommittee in charge of the Supreme Court budget. The letter, which came shortly before the Thomas disclosures, concluded by urging the withholding of $10 million in funding unless Chief Justice John Roberts notifies Congress that the court “has put into effect a public code of ethics for justices.”
Then Hawley got to the crux of the matter.
“That’s an interesting number to me,” he said, adding: “$10 million. $10 million. Why $10 million?”
Hawley’s staff then brought out a placard showing the Supreme Court’s 2024 budget request. He noted that it included $4,028,000 in security funding from the Chips and Science Act and $5,897,000 in additional security funding.
“Four plus six equals 10,” Hawley said, rounding the above figures. He added, “So in other words, the threat is: We will deny you security unless you do what we want. … Now members of this body say we will deny you security for you, your families, your children unless you do what we want. Extraordinary.”
Hawley cited a man who was arrested last summer for an alleged plot to assassinate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and other “credible threats” against justices. Republicans have also cried foul that people who protested outside justices’ homes weren’t arrested, despite such protests appearing to be illegal.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) echoed the argument during his round, saying the letter amounted to “threatening to cut off the funding for security at the Supreme Court. The left is willing to threaten the lives of the justices.”
But there is no evidence that security funding specifically has been targeted — security wasn’t mentioned in the letter — and Democrats deny they would pull the funding. The dollar figures don’t prove anything, and $10 million happens to be a round number.
The Supreme Court’s 2024 budget request is $150 million, a figure that includes security in addition to salaries, benefits, travel, rent, equipment and building maintenance. Just as security funds total around $10 million, so too do equipment requests ($10.8 million). Personnel compensation and benefits total nearly $89 million, about $10.6 million more than the fiscal year 2022 amount. And security costs aren’t the only requested increases; the total sought is $17 million more than fiscal year 2023.
The Washington Post reported last month that Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who chairs an appropriations subcommittee in charge of the court’s budget, said he would indeed seek to leverage the budget for an ethics code. (Withholding funding is a powerful tactic that is sometimes employed by appropriators, and Congress’s power to create an ethics code for justices is in dispute.)
Van Hollen didn’t provide detail at the time, but his spokeswoman told The Post on Tuesday that his office is “not aware of any member suggesting withholding security funding for the Supreme Court.”
“Sen. Van Hollen continues to assess options for ensuring the court establishes a code of ethics, but that isn’t one of them,” spokeswoman Francesca Amodeo said.
When asked what other evidence existed for the claim that Democrats were threatening to withhold $10 million in security funds, Hawley spokeswoman Abigail Marone cited the lack of direct Democratic denials at Tuesday’s hearing. She also pointed again to the numbers: “It would be an amazing coincidence that Democrats threatened to withhold the exact amount of funding from the Supreme Court that the court requested for judicial security in this year’s budget.”
In addition to the denial from Van Hollen’s office, the letter’s lead author, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), told The Post in a statement, “Our appropriations request was clearly not targeted at revoking the same security funding that all of the signers recently approved.”
(This was a reference to the Chips and Science Act, which included $20 million for Supreme Court security in response to the events of last summer.)
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also addressed Hawley’s and Cruz’s comments at the hearing, noting there was overwhelming bipartisan support last year for a judicial security bill shielding judges’ personal information from public-facing websites. He noted that GOP Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) held up the bill for months while seeking similar protections for lawmakers.
“The cause of security for our members of the judiciary is bipartisan,” Durbin said.