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Protesting against Congress may get you a $50 fine. Disrupting the Supreme Court is a different story.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Patricia McCabe declined to comment on behalf of the court, including its police department, when asked about how the court handles arrests.

Patty Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the office “takes all disruptions of official proceedings seriously and makes charging decisions consistent with the facts and the law.” That can include taking into account the defendant’s criminal history, she said.

Neither McCabe, Hartman nor a spokeswoman for the federal court would comment on why the Supreme Court protesters spent 30 hours in detention before their first court appearance. A spokeswoman for the District of Columbia jail did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Stiff, stiff sentences’

The Supreme Court appeared to take a tougher approach to protesters after a spurt of disruptions starting in 2014. In the first, serial protester Kai Newkirk stood up during an oral argument to protest the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling that paved the way for unlimited independent spending in federal elections.

When five people stood during an April 2015 oral argument to oppose the Citizens United decision, the third protest in little more than a year, the court’s patience seemed to wear thin.

During that disruption, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a warning from the bench saying that protesters could be punished. Fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia also weighed in: “Give them stiff, stiff sentences,” he said in remarks captured on an audio recording that was introduced as evidence.

In that case, the five defendants, as with the previous protesters, were held overnight in jail. But, unlike the earlier cases, they were sentenced to an additional weekend in jail by U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper. One defendant received a sentence of two weekends. Federal prosecutors had asked for 10-day prison terms.

The defendants were also prosecuted in federal court, as the three abortion rights protesters were, instead of the local Superior Court in the District of Columbia, according to court records, and faced a separate additional charge of disrupting a judicial proceeding that could have led to up to a year in prison.

Newkirk, who helped plan that later protest, said that, when factoring in all the differences with the earlier cases, it appeared that “the chief justice and others on the court were frustrated and perhaps angry about what was happening and wanted to crack down and try to stop it.”

A defense lawyer who has handled Supreme Court protest cases said that a prosecutor told him at the time that the U.S. attorney’s office was “getting directions” from the court’s lawyers.

Within an institution where the building itself is considered a holy temple, this was an example of the court “exerting its control,” the lawyer said.

‘Egregious disrespect’

Those familiar with Washington protests point to some possible reasons protesters are treated differently. One is that the Capitol Police has a lot more protesters to deal with, sometimes needing to process hundreds of people quickly. In contrast, although protests outside the Supreme Court building are common, it is relatively unusual for people to disrupt court proceedings inside the courtroom.

There are also inherent differences between the two institutions. Congress is where democratically elected representatives meet and a place where members of the public have a right to express their views. The high court, meanwhile, is not directly accountable to the people and likes to see itself as nonpolitical. As such, there may be a desire to crack down on protesters to help maintain that image. The respective police departments have different legal powers too, which could affect how they resolve cases.

The legal community’s reverence for the court was on display during the sentencing of the three protesters this month. Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Mayer-Dempsey said the women’s conduct “demonstrates egregious disrespect for the highest court in the land,” adding that they had shown a lack of remorse even while pleading guilty. She said that a disruption in the courtroom was “more significant” than similar conduct outside the building.

Paterson, Enfield and Baker, standing together at the lectern, gave an emotional joint statement in which they said their protest against the stripping away of abortion rights was in the grand tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in the United States.

“We did this in solidarity with women around the country who are now facing criminal prosecution and incarceration for making basic health care decisions about their bodies,” Baker said, her voice breaking, as she addressed the impact of the abortion ruling.

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