This summer, the American judicial system suffered a horrific blow.
On July 19, a litigant with a grudge against U.S. District Judge Esther Salas arrived at her New Jersey home disguised as a delivery man. He rang the judge’s doorbell and when her 20-year-old son answered, the attacker shot and killed him, then shot and critically wounded the judge’s husband.
Thankfully, physical attacks on judges, court employees and their families are rare, but this was not the only attack on federal judicial employees this year.
In May, a Federal Protective Services officer was murdered in a drive-by shooting at the federal courthouse in Oakland, California. Authorities said it was the work of violent extremists.
And in September, a court security officer for the U.S. Marshals Service was shot outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix, Arizona — the courthouse in my hometown where I often work as a trial lawyer. Authorities said the shooter was motivated by a hatred of law enforcement.
Congress must act during this current lame-duck session to protect judges and anyone who works at or uses federal courthouses. On Oct. 27, the American Bar Association sent a letter to Senate leaders, urging them to make judicial protection a priority during the waning days of this congressional session.
America’s justice system is the bedrock on which our democracy rests, but it works only when judges can act without fear of reprisal or physical harm to themselves or their families. An attack on one judge is an attack on the rule of law itself.
Unfortunately, threats against federal judges and court officials have risen dramatically in recent years, from 926 in 2015 to 4,449 in 2019, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. At least five more threats of physical harm to federal judges were reported from August to October in Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Federal marshals have a difficult job.
They protect more than 2,000 judges and many other court officials at more than 400 locations around the country. They need more help. It is far too easy for someone with bad intent to find home addresses and other personal information for judges and court personnel on the internet.
At a minimum, Congress should focus on three things right now:
— Increased funding to update security equipment and staff.
— Legislation to enhance judicial security without violating First Amendment rights. In particular, Congress should examine whether existing laws adequately protect the safety of everyone who works in or visits federal courthouses, especially on social media.
— Legislation that requires the Marshals Service and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to consult on a regular basis to address the evolving security needs of the judiciary. That might include enhanced threat monitoring and analysis capabilities, as well as a mandate to give Congress annual assessments of current and future security needs.
Since the attack at Judge Salas’ home, Congress has received two proposals for legislative action. Both merit careful consideration.
In September, the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policymaking body of the federal courts, requested $7.2 million for modern home intrusion detection systems in judges’ homes, increased funding to hire 1,000 additional deputy marshals and $267 million to replace and upgrade exterior perimeter security cameras at 650 U.S. courthouses and federal buildings that house judicial activities.
The Judicial Conference also requested legislation to prevent the unauthorized release of judges’ personally identifiable information, and authority for federal judges to redact personally identifiable information from financial disclosure reports.
Also in September, senators introduced bipartisan legislation to restrict online access to judges’ personal information, to give federal marshals more resources to assess and track threats against judges, and to fund improved security devices for judges’ homes.
The ABA recognizes that some of these proposals will likely spur debate and require extensive deliberation. Therefore, we urge Congress to focus first on approving the added funding. If adopted, it would be the first time Congress has appropriated money for enhanced security of judges since the murderous attack on a judge’s home in Chicago 15 years ago.
It is imperative for Congress to act quickly to guarantee the security of our federal judiciary. Our rule of law depends upon it.