Protests over the Supreme Court's expected decision to overturn abortion protections guaranteed by its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade have spilled from the steps of the court itself to the streets where the justices and their families live, igniting debate about the limits of acceptable political action in the United States.
Within hours of the May 2 report that a majority of the Supreme Court justices were in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, a protest took place at the court building in downtown Washington.
In the intervening week, law enforcement officials erected a 10-foot fence around the court building, blocking access. Activists have redirected some of their efforts, appearing in groups outside the homes of at least three members of the court: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh.
Although the protests have so far been peaceful, lawmakers are so concerned about the safety of the justices that the Senate on Monday unanimously approved funding for around-the-clock protective details for the justices and members of their families. The bill is awaiting action in the House of Representatives.
Too many in Washington, the activists' decision to protest in front of the justices' homes has crossed a line from lawful expression to harassment.
In remarks delivered on the Senate floor Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said, "Trying to scare federal judges into ruling a certain way is far outside the bounds of normal First Amendment speech or protest. It is an attempt to replace the rule of law with the rule of mobs."
"Threats to the physical safety of Supreme Court justices and their families are disgraceful, and attempts to intimidate and influence the independence of our judiciary cannot be tolerated," said Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican.
Critics of the protests also suggested that they might violate federal law.
Under a 1950 statute, the U.S. Code holds that "whoever, with the intent of interfering with, obstructing, or impeding the administration of justice, or with the intent of influencing any judge, juror, witness, or court officer, in the discharge of his duty, pickets or parades in or near a building housing a court of the United States, or in or near a building or residence occupied or used by such judge, juror, witness, or court officer," is guilty of a crime and can be subject to fine and/or imprisonment of up to one year.
Writing for Reason magazine, Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that under a plain reading of the law, "it appears likely that such protests are illegal."
Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservative commentators across the country have openly questioned why the Department of Justice has not taken any action against the protesters.
The 'American way'
On Tuesday, when asked whether he was "comfortable" with the protests taking place in front of individual justices' homes, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was.
"If protests are peaceful? Yes," Schumer said, pointing out that there are protests in front of his home in New York as often as several times per week.
"That's the American way," he said. "To peacefully protest is OK."
"Protests involving political views are part and parcel of the very DNA of what it means to be the United States of America — this country was founded out of protest," William F. Hall, an adjunct professor of political science at Washington University, Webster University and Maryville University, all in St. Louis, told VOA.
"In this particular instance, the outrage over this leak and the potentially imminent decision to overthrow Roe versus Wade fits right squarely in that context," Hall said.
A 'feeling of desperation'
Psychologist Lauren Duncan, a professor of psychology at Smith College who has studied protest movements, told VOA that given the circumstances, she did not find it surprising that protesters are trying to take their concerns directly to the justices.
A large majority of Americans do not want Roe v. Wade overturned. The fact that the Supreme Court appears poised to move ahead anyway, Duncan said, makes a broad segment of the population feel as though the court is simply not recognizing its concerns.
"The justices that we have right now, Alito in particular, they're immune to public opinion," Duncan said. "That's part of what feeds into this feeling of desperation. They're not being heard. These protesters feel like they're not being heard."
Unlikely to change minds
Deana Rohlinger, a professor of sociology at Florida State University who has studied protest movements, told VOA that protests directed at individual members of the Supreme Court would not likely sway their decision — just as protests directed at politicians often fail to change theirs.
"It rarely works with the intended target when you're talking about politics," she said. "It might work with a corporation, but with politicians, what it typically does is harden their point of view."
Persuasion, however, isn't the only object of protest, she added.
"It can have the effect of mobilizing other folks. It brings attention to the cause," she said.
"It's a way of holding people to account," Rohlinger added. "It can be used in political advertising and in a variety of other ways as we come into a midterm election. So, it's rarely about the target. It's more about all the other things that protests can help activists do beyond changing a mind."