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Who the Heck Is the Supreme Court Marshal?

After SCOTUS’ draft opinion on abortion rights was leaked earlier this week, the Supreme Court Marshal is now tasked with figuring who is responsible. But what is a Supreme Court Marshal anyway?

Almost as soon as the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade was leaked by Politico came the calls for an investigation into who, how and why the document became public at all. 

The revelations within the draft, written by Justice Samuel Alito, have stirred up a blockbuster moment for American politics, with many incensed by the impact of the decision on women’s lives and others just concerned that the leak is a partisan power play to force the hand of the court in one direction. 

Someone, somewhere, pulled off the unthinkable — an “unprecedented” breach of the court and its (somewhat questionable) reputation as a “non-political” entity that is, at least on paper, supposed to be shielded from the chaotic discourse of the public and its elected officials. Now, the chase is on to hunt down this leaker and figure out what exactly happened — but instead of the FBI, U.S. Marshals or the U.S. Capitol Police, the task has fallen into the lap of the Supreme Court Marshal. 

Which then inspires a follow-up question: What the heck is a Supreme Court Marshal? 

Unbeknownst to most Americans, SCOTUS has its very own police agency, headquartered at the Supreme Court building at 1 First Street, Northeast, in Washington D.C. The Supreme Court Police was founded in 1935 to provide specific protection for the newly built court building, with its original 33 officers recruited from the already existing Capitol Police. 

Today, the Supreme Court Police remains a tiny agency by most police standards, comprising under 200 employees, but its duties run the full gamut of police responsibilities, from protecting the physical Supreme Court grounds, offering security to justices and guests, and patrolling demonstrations and other large events. And the person who leads the agency is Supreme Court Marshal Gail Curley, a former career lawyer in the U.S. Army who is now in charge of the investigation to find the leaker. 

“The marshal’s like the COO of the Supreme Court,” Gabe Roth, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fix The Court, told the New York Times. “They concern themselves with overseeing the police, overseeing hirings. They’re involved in the budget proposals that are released every year. They’re involved in ensuring decorum is maintained during an open Supreme Court session.”

Most famously, the Supreme Court Marshal is the one who calls the court to order when the justices arrive and the session begins: “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court,” as the declaration goes. 

Pamela Talkin, Curley’s predecessor, recalled belting out this phrase more than 700 times over the course of her time as Supreme Court Marshal, even on days she was hoarse with illness. But beyond the day-to-day management of securing the court and making it run smoothly, it’s a real rarity for a Marshal to take on an investigation into a potential internal crime. Even when the original decision around Roe was leaked in 1973, the guilty party fessed up almost immediately, negating the need for protracted digging. 

That rarity, coupled with the famous secretiveness of the Supreme Court, makes it extremely unclear to what lengths Curley can go to seek out the leaker today; there are no clear protocols or even punishments for the act, and the court has refused to comment on the matter this week. 

So what to make of this unique, opaque little police squad? On one hand, the slew of federal police agencies hovering around D.C., each with distinct budgets and leadership but similar core duties, seems like a ridiculous reflection of how much policing has expanded in America over the course of the 20th century. Why on Earth do we need a specific arm for SCOTUS, given the courthouse is located within the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police — a department more than 10 times the size of the Supreme Court force? 

On the other hand, it’s noteworthy that, since the inception of the position, most Supreme Court Marshals have come from the world of law and advocacy, not previous police work. Curley is a lawyer, while her predecessor Talkin, the first woman to ever serve as marshal, worked on federal labor issues. Indeed, the very first marshal, Richard C. Parsons, was a lawyer himself. 

A combination of this type of leadership, as well as the relative peace of the job, has seemingly made being an officer with the Supreme Court Police a cherry job for those in law enforcement. You can find threads on Reddit and cop forums with police asking about potential jobs in the agency, citing its safety and relatively high pay but decrying how tough it is to find open positions. 

The leak is an early test for Curley, who took on the leadership role last year. Now, this little agency has the eyes of the nation on it, eager for detective work that leads to a culprit in the fight over Roe.