By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court signaled on Wednesday it would rule that two Secret Service agents cannot be sued over allegations they treated protesters gathered in support of former President George W. Bush more favorably than protesters critical of him.
During a one-hour oral argument, the nine justices appeared unsure over exactly what legal precedent to set but none indicated the lawsuit should go ahead.
At issue is an incident on October 14, 2004, when then-President Bush was staying at the Jacksonville Inn in Jacksonville, Oregon.
When the president decided to eat on an outdoor patio, the Secret Service agents protecting him moved anti-Bush protesters who had gathered outside the inn. After the move, the anti-Bush protesters were further from the president than some pro-Bush demonstrators who also had gathered near the inn.
Justice Antonin Scalia was the most forthright in saying the claims made by some of the protesters who were moved should be barred.
"It's a very simple case," he said.
He seemed to endorse a potential ruling that would say if the Secret Service had a valid reason for moving the protesters, it should not matter if the agents may have had another motive. The Secret Service cited security reasons for moving the protesters, while the plaintiffs say the real reason was to ensure the president was not disturbed.
Other justices appeared more concerned about issuing a ruling that would have broad implications on future lawsuits.
"It seems to me if this complaint doesn't survive, then nothing will," Justice Anthony Kennedy said of the lawsuit.
Government lawyer Ian Gershengorn said that a ruling endorsing such lawsuits could lead to the "nightmare scenario" of Secret Service agents hesitating in situations in which they had to act quickly.
Seven of the anti-Bush protesters filed a lawsuit in 2009 claiming that the agents violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A federal judge in Oregon refused to dismiss the case in an October 2010 decision that was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April 2012. Agents Tim Wood and Rob Savage, backed by the administration of President Barack Obama, had appealed that ruling.
A Supreme Court ruling is expected by the end of June.
The case is Wood v. Moss, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-115.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)