WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court today agreed to settle a dispute that involves thecourt itself about whether protests and leafletting should be allowed on the grounds and sidewalks around the high court building.
The highly unusual case is, in effect, an appeal by the Supreme Court to the Supreme Court.
At issue is a federal appeals court decision striking down a law that allowed Supreme Court police to arrest anyone who tried to demonstrate or pass out written material around the huge, marble-columned building across the street from the Capitol.
The appeal -- written by lawyers in the Solicitor General's office of the Justice Department -- is filed on behalf of Supreme Court Marshal Alfred Wong and court Police Chief James Zagami.
Although the justices technically are not part of the appeal, the marshal and court police are ultimately answerable to Chief Justice Warren Burger.
Burger himself was named as a defendant in lower court, although he is not part of the pending case.
Sparking the controversy was a 2-1 ruling last September by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The panel concluded that although courts have a right to 'protect the judicial process by placing certain restrictions on the right to demonstrate and leaflet around courthouses, they cannot flatly ban all such activity.
'We believe it would be tragic if the grounds of the Supreme Court, unquestionably the greatest protector of First Amendment rights, stood as an island of silence in which those rights could never be exercised in any form,' Judge Harry Edwards wrote for the appellate panel.
That decision was a victory for Thaddeus Zywicki and Mary Terese Grace. Zywicki, an elderly Roman Catholic missionary, was stopped once in 1978 and twice in 1980 from distributing pamphlets on the sidewalk in front of the court.
In 1980, Ms. Grace was stopped when she tried to stand on the same sidewalk with a sign quoting the First Amendment.
They have so far successfully challenged a law, enacted by Congress, which makes it 'unlawful to parade, stand or move in processions or assemblages' around the court grounds, or to display 'any flag, banner or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice any party, organization or movement.'
Edwards specifically specifically rejected the notion that 'the peace and decorum of the Supreme Court' justify such an all-out ban.
But the legal brief written by the Justice Department argues there is 'an alternative means of expression' -- demonstrating across the street from the court.
It also asserts the court building and grounds should be treated 'as a symbol of the characteristic virtues of the judicial process - calm deliberation and reflection, free from outside pressure and political controversy.'