WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices
on Wednesday appeared sympathetic to the argument that Secret
Service agents have immunity from a lawsuit by a Colorado man
arrested after he confronted then-Vice President Dick Cheney and
criticized his Iraq war policies.
In hearing arguments, the justices seemed likely to rule for
the Obama administration and for the agents, whose lawyer argued
they cannot be held personally liable for damages because the
arrest had been supported by sufficient cause.
Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan, arguing for the
administration, and Sean Gallagher, representing the two agents,
said allowing such lawsuits would make the agents hesitant while
protecting the president or the vice president.
"We believe that it is important for Secret Service agents
acting in this protective capacity to have the requisite
breathing room in order to make decisions in life-or-death or
imminent-threat situations," Gallagher said.
Srinivasan also argued for immunity for the agents that
would protect them from such lawsuits.
Justice Stephen Breyer seemed sympathetic to the argument
made by the government and by the lawyer for the two agents.
"I see the problem of protecting people in public life; I
see the problem in protecting the president," he said. "The
president's ... life is at stake."
Justice Antonin Scalia agreed and said there had been
probable cause for the arrest. "So long as they have good reason
for an arrest, it doesn't matter," he said.
The Colorado man, Steven Howards, claimed in his lawsuit
that the agents retaliated against him for exercising his
constitutionally protected free-speech rights.
Howards was arrested after he approached Cheney during a
June 16, 2006 visit to a mall in Beaver Creek, Colorado. When
Howards learned Cheney was at the mall, a Secret Service agent
said he overheard Howards say into his cell phone, "I'm going to
ask him (Cheney) how many kids he's killed today."
Howards waited to meet with Cheney, who was greeting people,
shaking hands and posing for photographs. He then confronted
Cheney and told him his "policies in Iraq are disgusting."
As Howards departed, he touched Cheney's right shoulder with
his open hand.
Howards denied assaulting Cheney when questioned by one of
the agents. The other agent confirmed he had witnessed the
incident and demonstrated how Howards had contact with Cheney.
The two agents decided to arrest Howards, who was turned
over to local law enforcement authorities and charged with
harassment under state law. The charges were later dismissed.
Howards then sued, claiming he had been arrested unlawfully
and seeking financial damages from the two agents.
David Lane, an attorney for Howards, argued the lawsuit
should be allowed to proceed. But Chief Justice John Roberts
asked Lane whether it had been reasonable for the agents to
"You see somebody who said (Cheney's) policies are
disgusting, that person touches the vice president, he ... lies
to you. He comes back, he's carrying a bag and he's wandering
around," Roberts said, adding that he was trying to summarize
what might have been going through the agent's mind at the time.
Justice Samuel Alito asked Lane whether there was a record
of retaliatory arrests by Secret Service agents against
people who make critical comments of the president and vice
A ruling in the case is expected by the end of June.
The Supreme Court case is Reichle v. Howards, No. 11-262.
For Reichle: Sean Gallagher of Polsinelli Shughart.
For Howards: David Lane of Killmer, Lane & Newman.
(Reporting by James Vicini)
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