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The Morning Dispatch: The Plot to Kill a Supreme Court Justice
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The Morning Dispatch: The Plot to Kill a Supreme Court Justice

Plus: A district attorney recall election underscores voters’ dissatisfaction with San Francisco’s status quo.

Happy Thursday! On this day in 1953, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was busy accusing yet another person of harboring Communist connections when a lawyer cut him off. “You’ve done enough,” Joseph Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The audience literally burst into applause, and McCarthy’s popularity evaporated more or less overnight.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was targeted in an apparent assassination attempt in the early hours of Wednesday morning, federal police said Wednesday. A California man allegedly purchased firearms and traveled to the D.C. area with the intent of killing Kavanaugh and himself, but changed his mind and turned himself in after a brush with law enforcement outside Kavanaugh’s house. In the wake of the attempt, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the House to move forward on legislation passed by the Senate last month that would beef up federal protection for SCOTUS justices and their families. 

  • Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that a Department of Justice team would review local law enforcement’s response to last month’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Local police have come under intense scrutiny for their response to the attack, which included waiting outside for more than an hour as the shooter barricaded himself in a classroom with children, temporarily detaining frantic parents who wanted to go in and get to their children, and lying about the sequence of events afterward. 

  • More than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers captured in the wake of the lengthy siege of Mariupol have been transferred to Russia, Russian state news reported Wednesday. Russia is widely expected to use the prisoners as a bargaining chip even as its armies continue to make their grinding advance through the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. 

  • More than 90 women who say they were assaulted by Larry Nassar—former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor convicted of sexual abuse—sued the FBI for more than $1 billion Wednesday for its failure to investigate Nassar. The FBI decided two weeks ago not to prosecute two former agents accused by its own watchdog of bungling and lying about the investigation.

  • The House voted 223-204 Wednesday to pass a gun control package that would ban high-capacity magazines, require background checks for buying “ghost guns,” require safe storage, and raise the age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles to 21. It’s unlikely to pass the Senate.

  • Shanghai officials will lock down a southwestern district of the city Saturday for COVID-19 testing, days after the city ended its two-month lockdown. China is still pursuing a zero-COVID policy, and the Shanghai district could face a two-week lockdown if testing uncovers cases.

Too Close for Comfort for Brett Kavanaugh

(Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Wednesday dawned in D.C. to unsettling news: In the wee hours of the morning, police had arrested an armed California man near Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house. The man, who several outlets reported was armed with a gun, a knife, and “burglary tools” and who is identified in charging documents as Nicholas Roske, told police he was angry with the court’s reported plan to overturn Roe v. Wade and inaction on gun control and that he had come to kill Kavanaugh.

In a sworn affidavit, FBI agent Ian Montijo, who interviewed Roske following his arrest, described an unnerving scene: Shortly after 1 a.m., U.S. deputy marshals who were on duty securing Kavanaugh’s home saw a taxi pull up in front of the house, from which emerged a man dressed in black with a backpack and suitcase. He made eye contact with the marshals standing in the street, then turned and walked down the street, away from Kavanaugh’s house.

Shortly thereafter, according to the affidavit, local emergency services fielded a 911 call from Roske, who told them he was having suicidal thoughts and was carrying a gun. Local police were dispatched and arrested him without incident, and upon searching him found “a black tactical chest rig and tactical knife, a Glock 17 pistol with two magazines and ammunition, pepper spray, zip ties, a hammer, screwdriver, nail punch, crow bar, pistol light, duct tape, hiking boots with padding on the outside of the soles, and other items.”

“Roske stated that he began thinking about how to give his life a purpose and decided that he would kill the Supreme Court Justice after finding the Justice’s Montgomery County address on the internet,” Montijo testified. “Roske further indicated that he had purchased the Glock pistol and other items for the purpose of breaking into the Justice’s residence and killing the Justice as well as himself.”

If this testimony proves true, America came dizzyingly close two nights ago to its most consequential political assassination since the 1968 killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The narrative suggests that Roske took preconsidered step after preconsidered step toward carrying out his murderous plot, only to get cold feet at the last possible minute when he found himself face-to-face with federal marshals. But it was only weeks ago that the U.S. Marshals started helping local police with providing security to SCOTUS justices, following the leak of a draft SCOTUS opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, indicating the court may be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

An attempt like this wasn’t unexpected. A May 13 Department of Homeland Security memo, later obtained by Axios, warned that the Dobbs leak was likely to lead to increased threats against SCOTUS justices and other public officials, clergy, and health care providers “leading up to and following the issuing of the Court’s official ruling.”

That same week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill from Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn that would provide enhanced protection to families of justices and other officers of the court. But the House of Representatives has yet to take that bill up.

“I hope our colleagues who have some influence with the members of the House, particularly the House leadership, will encourage them to get this bill out of the door today,” Cornyn said during a Judiciary Committee hearing on May 12. “I shudder to think what might happen if the Supreme Court members and their family are denied this sort of protection, which the Senate has unanimously supported, because it gets slow-walked in the House.”

The attempt also comes after weeks of pro-abortion-rights protests outside the homes of Republican-appointed justices, where protesters holding signs with slogans like “ABORT THE COURT” caused some to worry about the possibility of things tipping into violence. Prominent Democrats struggled to strike a middle ground between praising the fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest and discouraging tactics of intimidation. (As many experts have pointed out, it is a federal crime to “picket or parade” in or near the residence of a judge “with the intent of influencing” that judge “in the discharge of his duty.”)

“I know that there’s an outrage right now, I guess, about protests that have been peaceful to date—and we certainly continue to encourage that—outside of judges’ homes,” President Joe Biden’s then-press secretary Jen Psaki said on May 10.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also trafficked in immoderate rhetoric regarding SCOTUS and abortion, saying at a March 2020 rally that Justices Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch “have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price … You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” Schumer later apologized for his rhetoric but blamed Republicans for distorting his meaning, claiming “my point was that there would be political consequences … if the Supreme Court, with the newly confirmed justices, stripped away a woman’s right to choose.”

Even in the wake of the attempted assassination, some pro-abortion groups met the news with a shrug. Ruth Sent Us, the group that has organized the protests outside the conservative justices’ homes, responded to the news of the attempt with a meme reading “Oh, I’m sorry, did you want some PRIVACY?” “Does Kavanaugh hold any responsibility for the people’s rage against him?” they pondered.

All this is rattling, but if anything it’s surprising we haven’t seen more of it sooner. Although political assassination in the western world used to be far more common than it is today, no SCOTUS justice has ever been assassinated in America—perhaps because, until recently, it wasn’t considered a particularly political office.

Plainly, this is no longer the case. Assassinate a president, as has been done four times in U.S. history, and all you do is switch them out for their own vice president. But if the president and Senate are controlled by the opposite party, assassinating a justice is an act that fundamentally alters the composition of the court. Imagine for a moment an alternate reality where the awful attempt on Kavanaugh’s life had been successful. Naturally, President Biden would have been withering in his denunciation of the attack and absolute in his pronouncement that political violence is never acceptable. But you can bet whoever he tapped to replace Kavanaugh wouldn’t be a vote to overturn Roe.

The plot targeting Justice Kavanaugh is the latest manifestation of the troubling growth of political violence in America. Last Friday, a retired Wisconsin circuit judge was murdered by a man who allegedly had a list of other potential political targets, including two regional Democratic governors and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The same day, Capitol Police arrested a man attempting to gain access to the Capitol with a fake ID, whose car contained ballistic vests, BB guns, and ammunition despite no real firearms. Earlier this year, a Texas man was arrested on charges of making death threats against election officials in Georgia; last fall Capitol Police arrested a man  armed with a bayonet and a machete near the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee; a month earlier, a North Carolina man livestreamed an antigovernment rant from his pickup truck parked in front of the Capitol, where he claimed to have a bomb and police found possible bombmaking materials in his truck. In June 2017, a crazed gunman opened fire on a group of Republican lawmakers practicing baseball in Alexandria, Virginia, causing near-fatal wounds to Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican at the time. 

And that’s not even to mention the most prominent recent example of political violence—the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, with the express purpose of overthrowing the results of the 2020 election. 

On Tuesday, David and Steve spent much of the hour-long Dispatch Live discussion on growing political violence in America. David asked Rep. Liz Cheney whether the threat of violence deterred some of her colleagues from saying in public the thing they say privately about January 6 and Donald Trump’s attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power. Cheney said she believes they’re motivated more by a simple desire to remain in office but added, “When you begin to see violence become part of our political process and our political dialogue, I do think that there’s people who do fear for their safety.” 

The problem is a reflection of a badly broken political culture and it won’t be easily fixed. But, in the meantime, the House should probably  go ahead and pass that SCOTUS protection bill. 

San Francisco Says Bye to Boudin

For many political observers, San Francisco is as much a cliché as an actual city. The blue bastion—home of Nancy Pelosi and endlessly bizarre school board meetings—is exactly the type of place you’d expect to elect a district attorney as progressive as Chesa Boudin.

A former public defender and the son of violent far-left activists, Boudin promised during his campaign to reduce recidivism by addressing poverty and mental health, cut incarceration rates for low-level crimes, and quit prosecuting quality-of-life crimes like public urination. During his tenure Boudin ended cash bail, avoided charging minors as adults, and in most cases blocked his prosecutors from pursuing charges for drugs and guns found during minor traffic stops. He embraced lower charges for drug dealing, largely on grounds that many small-time dealers would face deportation.

Overall crime has dropped in San Francisco since Boudin took office in 2020, but burglaries rose 45 percent and homicides 37 percent in the last two years—though killings still trailed the national average. His office filed charges about as often as his predecessor’s, but the conviction rate sank from 60 percent in 2019 to 39 percent in 2021—which his office attributes to defendants sent to rehabilitation programs instead of prison.

But voters recalled Boudin Tuesday night by a 20-point margin (with only 61 percent of the votes counted thus far). Recalls are easier in California than elsewhere, and in San Francisco particularly so. But still, 20 points—what happened here?

If you ask Boudin, Republican mega-donors happened. “I want to be very clear about what happened tonight,” Boudin said Tuesday. “The right-wing billionaires outspent us three to one.” 

But more disinterested observers say not so fast. “I think it’s just fundamentally a misreading of this election to say that these results are because voters had bad messages from a conservative, Republican, kind of ‘law and order’ pro-recall campaign,” San Francisco State University political science professor Jason McDaniel told The Dispatch, arguing that the Democrat-led recall campaign’s spending wasn’t near enough to account for the depth of Boudin’s loss. “Money in an election matters, but you know, as a political scientist, it does not matter by 20 points. It does not matter by even 5 percentage points, usually.”

If you ask some conservatives, San Franciscans are finally seeing the light and rejecting liberal policies. But that’s a misread, too, according to recall organizers. “This election does not mean that San Francisco has drifted to the far right on our approach to criminal justice,” recall campaign chair Mary Jung said in a statement. “In fact, San Francisco has been a national beacon for progressive criminal justice reform for decades and will continue to do so with new leadership.” 

Boudin’s recall also isn’t necessarily evidence that the progressive prosecutor movement is over. Just outside San Francisco, a progressive candidate is in the lead of Alameda County’s district attorney race. Not that conservatives won’t be gleeful anyway: Sen. Tom Cotton has long railed against Boudin and similarly progressive prosecutors. When The Dispatch asked him about Boudin’s recall, he suggested we report that he laughed and declined to comment.

But if Boudin’s recall isn’t attributable to big bad Republicans or San Francisco’s secret conservative side, what is it? For one thing, some headline-grabbing crimes undermined Boudin’s already shaky mandate. In December 2020, a man driving a stolen car in San Francisco hit and killed two women. He’d been arrested five times in the previous six months, but Boudin’s office had cited weak evidence for those arrests and declined to file charges that could have imprisoned him. Many Asian American residents also faulted Boudin for a weak response to racist attacks against them–about 67 percent supported his recall. And viral videos of brazen smash-and-grabs and shoplifting contributed to the sense of a city out of control.

“Residents had hoped Boudin would reform the criminal-justice system and treat low-level offenders more humanely,” Nellie Bowles wrote for The Atlantic Wednesday. “Instead, critics argued that his policies victimized victims, allowed criminals to go free to reoffend, and did nothing to help the city’s most vulnerable.”

Boudin told San Franciscans to be patient, that the data showed crime overall going down, and that research supported his methods’ long-term effectiveness. But many felt ignored. “I’ve talked to the DA in passing several times,” Rene Colorado—head of a business association in the drug-heavy Tenderloin district—told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The only thing he says is, ‘You’re safe. The numbers show, the data shows, studies show.’ That’s all he says. I question my intelligence when an elected official talks down to me.” Boudin also has an antagonistic relationship with San Francisco police, and some 40 percent of the city’s deputy district attorneys have left since he took office. Two joined the recall effort. None of that was likely to inspire citizens’ confidence in his ability.

In addition, Boudin seems to have gotten caught up in San Franciscans’ broader frustrations with their government’s failure to respond humanely and effectively to the city’s other problems—the mayor’s office and police department play a big role in the city’s response to homelessness and drug use, for instance, and those issues didn’t spring into existence when Boudin took office. Signaling similar dissatisfaction in education, San Francisco already recalled three liberal school board members in a landslide earlier this year. With Boudin’s recall, McDaniel argued, “San Francisco voters were voting for a government that works—a liberal, progressive government that works.”

“There is a sense that, on everything from housing to schools, San Francisco has lost the plot—that progressive leaders here have been LARPing left-wing values instead of working to create a livable city,” Bowles wrote. “And many San Franciscans have had enough.”

Worth Your Time

  • We’ve already quoted Nellie Bowles’s piece for The Atlantic about the Boudin recall and San Francisco, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. “In February 2021, at a corner in the lovely Japantown neighborhood, just a few feet from a house that would soon sell for $4.8 million, a 37-year-old homeless man named Dustin Walker died by the side of the road,” Bowles writes. “His body lay there for at least 11 hours. He wore blue shorts and even in death clutched his backpack. I can’t stop thinking about how long he lay there, dead, on that corner, and how normal this was in our putatively gentle city. San Franciscans are careful to use language that centers people’s humanity—you don’t say ‘a homeless person’; you say ‘someone experiencing homelessness’—and yet we live in a city where many of those people die on the sidewalk.”

  • This by Eli Saslow for the Washington Post is perhaps a still more searing portrait of the dysfunction and illness a Denver bus driver and mental health crisis counselor sees during a typical day. “[Mary] Kent walked from the train corridor to the bus platform and then back again during her shift, helping to de-escalate one mental health crisis after the next,” Saslow writes. “A woman was shouting that she was 47-weeks pregnant and needed to go to the hospital. A teenager was running naked through the central corridor, until Kent helped calm her down and a transit police officer coaxed her into a shirt. During a typical 12-hour shift, Kent tried to help people suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia, withdrawal, bipolar disorder, and substance-induced paranoia. She connected many of them with counseling and emergency shelter, but they just as often refused her help. Unless they posed an immediate threat to themselves or others, there wasn’t much she could do.”

  • If you’ve been struggling to get a mental map of the cities and land changing hands in the war in Ukraine, this brief video will give you the big picture. It’s worth a minute and 39 seconds of your time.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In today’s Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah discuss the armed man arrested near Kavanaugh’s house and the sexual misconduct allegations at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. They also unpack the court’s ruling for a border patrol agent and open up the mailbag. 

  • A year ago it seemed like China was crushing it economically and (at least publicly) in its COVID-19 response. How times change. Scott hates to say I told you so, but does it anyway in the new Capitolism (🔒), with a look at China and America’s economic prospects.

  • Jonah had a bit of a dustup over school shootings on CNN Tuesday, and explains where he was coming from in the latest G-File (🔒). He also considers Fox News’ decision not to cover the January 6 hearings during primetime.

  • Rep. Mike Gallagher joins Jonah on The Remnant for some drinking and a smorgasbord of half-baked ideas, including the ongoing effort to annex Greenland, trap doors under escalators, and dad-centric dating apps.

  • On the site today, Isaac Willour reports on how it’s not just Supreme Court justices seeing new threats of violence related to the Dobbs leaked opinion: pro-life activists and organizations are seeing more violence and vandalism too. Danielle Pletka unpacks Congress getting increasingly cold to the Biden administration’s attempts to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, and Ivana Stradner and Michael Rubin detail Henry Kissinger’s decades-long track record of appeasing dictatorships.

Let Us Know

Here’s a legal question of the sort we hadn’t considered before today: If a person plans to kill someone, and buys weapons to kill someone, and makes travel plans to kill someone, and follows through on those travel plans, but then gets there, realizes they can’t go through with it, and turns themselves in—has that person actually “attempted murder”?

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.