Tuesday, April 1, 2014
In the oral arguments last week in Wood v. Moss and the Court's 2012 decision in Reichle v. Howards, the Secret Service was center stage. Recall that both cases involve qualified immunity for Secret Service agents against constitutional claims and raise the specter that the individual agents acted inappropriately. And in both cases, there is some valorization of the agents and their difficult task of protecting the President (in Wood) and the Vice-President (in Reichle).
Arguing for the United States Government in Wood v. Moss, the Deputy Solicitor General expressed the fear that not upholding qualified immunity would lead to a "demoralization of the service leaning in the direction of being overly careful and therefore risking the life of the President" and that allowing discovery is "exactly the nightmare scenario that the Secret Service fears" including "
discovery into what the agents were thinking" and "what the Secret Service's policies were."
And in Reichle, Justice Ginsburg concurring in the unanimous opinion, discusses the difficult facts in the case as well as deference to the agents' role:
Officers assigned to protect public officials must make singularly swift, on the spot, decisions whether the safety of the person they are guarding is in jeopardy. In performing that protective function, they rightly take into account words spoken to, or in the proximity of, the person whose safety is their charge. Whatever the views of Secret Service Agents Reichle and Doyle on the administration’s policies in Iraq, they were duty bound to take the content of Howards’ statements into account in determining whether he posed an immediate threat to the Vice President’s physical security. Retaliatory animus cannot be inferred from the assessment they made in that regard.
But one wonders how positive views of the Secret Service suffer given recurrent scandals involving the Secret Service. As the United States Supreme Court was considering Reichle, there was the scandal in Colombia involving more than a dozen agents, but a later Homeland Security report (official synposis here) found that there was not "widespread sexual misconduct." Most recently, at least one agent assigned to protect the President was reportedly "found drunk and passed out in a hotel hallway." This latest scandal was reportedly not good news for the Secret Service's first woman director who has "tried to implement reforms." One former Secret Service agent writes in a WaPo op-ed that the problem is not bad agents but bad leadership."
But whether attributed to bad leadership or what might be called "bad apples," should these revelations about the bad judgments of secret service agents influence the Court's own judgments? Doctrines such as qualified immunity and strict pleading requirements that prevent discovery serve to protect Secret Service agents from their "nightmares" (as the Deputy Solicitor General phrased it), but might they also insulate the Secret Service from responsibility for the nightmares they cause others.