WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court appeared inclined Wednesday to shield federal agents who are protecting government officials from claims of free speech violations, in a case that began with the arrest of a man who confronted Vice President Dick Cheney.
The justices voiced concern that the threat of lawsuits over retaliatory arrests could make Secret Service agents and other officers who protect federal officials hesitate at critical moments, with potentially disastrous results.
The Obama administration and two Secret Service agents who are being sued over the arrest at a Cheney event in Colorado in 2006 are asking the court to go even further. They want the justices to bar lawsuits against all law enforcement officers asserting that an arrest was made in retaliation for what someone said, if a judge has found officers had a valid reason for the arrest.
It was not clear from Wednesday's argument whether the court would issue so sweeping a ruling. "You say extend it to everything. That's what makes me a little nervous," Justice Stephen Breyer said.
Lawsuits over retaliatory prosecutions already are not allowed in similar circumstances.
The case before the court arose from a lawsuit filed by Steven Howards of Golden, Colo., who was detained by Cheney's security detail in 2006 after he told Cheney of his opposition to the war in Iraq. The chance encounter took place at a shopping center in the mountain resort of Beaver Creek, where Cheney was shaking hands and Howards was attending his son's piano recital.
Howards claimed he was arrested because he expressed his anti-war views, including saying into his cell phone that he was going to ask Cheney "how many kids he killed today."
Howards also touched Cheney on the shoulder, then denied doing so under questioning. Appellate judges in Denver said the inconsistency gave the agents reason to arrest Howards.
Even so, the appeals court said Howards could sue the agents for violating his rights.
There seemed little support for that view at the Supreme Court.
Breyer said agents were legitimately concerned about Howards, both because of what he said and did.
"Now if there's a lawsuit, the agency will say we just can't do it. We can't do it. We can't use that as a basis for stopping that individual. All that poses a problem," Breyer said.
David Lane of Denver, representing Howards, told the justices there is no easy way to resolve situations where someone claims violations of his right to speech.
"Well, there is an easy way out of it," Chief Justice John Roberts cut in. The court could rule for the agents, Roberts said.
The justices and the lawyers referred frequently to the Secret Service's role in protecting the president, vice president and other top officials.
At one point, Lane said he was not denigrating the work of the Secret Service.
"The Secret Service has adequately done their jobs, beautifully, for over a century," he said, saying there is no need for the court to shield agents from lawsuits.
"Well, we've lost a couple of presidents," Justice Antonin Scalia said, provoking some laughter in the courtroom.
A ruling should come by late spring.
The case is Reichle v. Howards, 11-262.