Technological advances and the ability to acquire personal information on the internet has contributed to the increased safety risk judges undertake each time they take the bench. And the travesty undergone by Judge Salas is another indication that protection for federal judges should be heightened. ((Photo Credit: Adriana James-Rodil/Photoshop Mix/Achona Online))
Technological advances and the ability to acquire personal information on the internet has contributed to the increased safety risk judges undertake each time they take the bench. And the travesty undergone by Judge Salas is another indication that protection for federal judges should be heightened.

(Photo Credit: Adriana James-Rodil/Photoshop Mix/Achona Online)

Federal Judges Deserve More Protection as an Increase in Threats Leave Them Susceptible to Danger (EDITORIAL)

March 19, 2021

College Sophomore, 20 year-old, Daniel Anderl was cleaning the basement after his birthday party with his mom, U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas, and his dad, Mark Anderl, until they heard someone ring the doorbell. Daniel then went upstairs to answer the door to who he thought to be a FedEx driver.

Gunshots. 

Daniel was fatally shot in the chest while trying to stop the shooter, and Mark was shot three times but survived. The shots fired on July 19, 2020, at their home in New Jersey were meant for Judge Salas who went upstairs after she heard the gunshots, but the gunman had already left the scene. As a result of his actions, “the center of their [Judge Salas and Mark’s] universe” who “wanted to squeeze the joy out of every situation” was gone.

The man who posed as a FedEx driver was 72 year-old Roy Den Hollander who “had been stalking the Salas family” and knew the “routes the judge took to work, the school her son attended, and where the family went to church” — all of which was found legally on the internet. Hollander committed suicide after the shooting. 

The attack on the Salas family comes as threats against federal judges have increased in the last five years by 400%, with more than 4,200 in the previous year alone. 

“This tragedy demonstrates the vulnerability of judges. I am absolutely heartbroken for Judge Salas and her family,” said High School Social Studies Teacher Dana Nazaretian.

Unfortunately, there have also been assasination attempts against other federal judges. Judge Salas revealed in a “60 Minutes” interview that Hollander was planning to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as well. The FBI found a gun with ammunition and a folder with information about Sotomayor in a locker that belonged to him.

Additionally, Aaron M. Richardson in Jacksonville, Florida, was found guilty of attempting to assassinate U.S. District Court Judge Timothy J. Corrigan and sentenced “to 343 years in federal prison.” Richardson stole a rifle from a Sports Authority and, by using the Internet, obtained the location of Corrigan’s residence, where he arrived on the eve of June 22, 2013. He fired one shot at Corrigan, but it missed him by two inches. 

We need to understand that judges are at risk. We need to understand that we put ourselves in great danger every day for doing our jobs . . . This fact has to wake us up.”

— Judge Salas

The issue regarding threats against federal judges has garnered national attention since the murder of Salas’ son and her subsequent commitment to pushing Congress for better protection for judges, yet it has been prevalent for years. So, the question remains — why has no action been taken to increase protection for federal judges?

“The federal judiciary was created by the Constitution to include life-time tenure in an effort to shield judges from the public. While the attack on Judge Salas and her family is an extreme violation of this desire by the Founders, it is clear that they [the Founders] feared some type of possibility of retribution,” said High School Social Studies Teacher Stacy Filocco. 

The U.S. Marshals Service “was the first federal law enforcement agency in the United States,” established in 1789, and one of its duties under its Judicial Security Division includes “protecting the federal judiciary [judges, court officials, witnesses, jurors, visitors, prisoners, and others who have been threatened],” as well as investigating threats. 

And while the U.S. Marshals Service protects the judicial process during proceedings within federal facilities, judges still face security vulnerabilities, such as the ability for people to easily access their personal information on the internet, lack of enhanced home and courthouse security measures, and more. 

“Regarding the protection of private information of judges, I’m not sure much can be done as a result of the internet and social media.  There are a variety of methods that can be used to uncover personal information. When my husband became a judge in 2001, it was easier to keep personal information confidential. Property tax records could be sealed to protect judges’ home addresses, and judges could use a post office box as their address on their driver’s license,” said Nazaretian. 

In response to the death of Salas’s son, an emergency meeting with the Judicial Security Committee of the Judicial Conference —which “is the policy-making body for the federal court system” — met to create five recommendations to heighten the security for federal judges through Congressional funding. Two days after the meeting, the recommendations were approved by the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference. 

The next step for the judiciary is to advocate that Congress pass legislation relating to their recommendations.

Furthermore, the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 has also shed light on the need for heightened security for both judges and members of Congress because, like the U.S. Federal Court System, full-time protection is only offered to its leaders — such as the House Speaker, the whips, and the majority and minority leaders. As a result, this could be an indicator that legislation will soon pass regarding increasing funding for the security of federal judges. 

This increase in violence has been proportional with the courts’ increased responsibilities and powers in decision-making. Civil and criminal filings in the federal district courts have risen 28% since the fiscal year 1993,  meaning the workload of each federal judge has increased exponentially as Congress has barely adjusted the number of federal judges to handle these changes. As federal judges have gained responsibilities and media attention, the eyes of extremists have turned towards them as potential targets of attacks against the country.

“Having a family member who is a judge, I hear occasionally about people who film threatening rant videos directed towards him or leave an angry voicemail at the courthouse. More often than not, however, I’m not told about the threats against his life, but I know they are there. Judges rely on the U.S. Marshals [Service] to keep them safe, as well as various security screenings for visitors, but those protections are largely gone once the judge goes home after work. All judges are nominated or elected to the position and willingly take the job as a public servant. I think it’s fair to say that any job in law enforcement comes with unavoidable risks, but work should still be done to mitigate threats when possible,” said Anonymous — who is the daughter of a federal judge. 

These extremists have been propelled by political polarization in the last decade. Ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished, as currently “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” Polarization has also led to increased partisan animosity, with each side fearing that the other will cause the destruction of the U.S. While the federal courts are typically seen as above partisanship or politics, they also present easy targets for those who are frustrated by partisanship.

“As the country has become so polarized, individuals have become emboldened and resent anyone who disagrees with their mindset. Unfortunately, this may sometimes end in violence. Regarding my family’s experience with fear and intimidation – we have had several death threats. When the threats are credible, the authorities provide us with protection. As a result of my husband’s occupation, I am mindful of my surroundings; when I am driving, I try to be cognizant if someone is following me home. Judges understand that threats are a possible occupational hazard; however ,they are committed to fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities and serving their communities,” said Nazaretian. 

The issue is deepened when politicians and other prominent figures deflect blame onto federal judges and other officials; these individuals act as federal employees, meaning they should be above partisan politics. That becomes difficult when politicians directly corrode their authority. 

For example, when Judge Richard Clifton of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that blocked Former President Donald Trump’s first try at a travel ban, Trump told reporters the ruling was solely “political.” Trump also demeaned a Seattle federal judge who ruled against the ban by referring to them as a “so-called judge,” in addition to suggesting a San Diego federal judge overseeing a fraud lawsuit against Trump University was biased because of his Mexican heritage

While attacks like those levied by Trump have become tools for political gain, they have serious repercussions on the safety of federal judges and their families; not to mention, these attacks give leverage to those who wish to corrode the judicial system and cast doubt upon the authority of federal judges. 

“The increase in violence and threats against judges and federal employees may be attributed to government representatives and leaders challenging judicial and federal decisions in a very public and derogatory fashion. I appreciate that individuals may disagree with a judge’s decision, however, there is a civil way to demonstrate an individual’s perspective,” said Nazaretian. 

Another potential contributor to this issue is misinformation spread by the media and extremist groups. Unjust criticism of the judiciary in the form of fake news, false information, or misleading claims serves to erode the public’s trust and confidence in the judicial system, which can lead to resentment against the judiciary as an institution or against individual judges — like in the dangerous manifestation of violence against Judge Salas. The assailant against Judge Salas had a history of racist, misogynistic internet postings, many of which targeted Latina judges; among extremist groups and forums, this unacceptable behavior was likely encouraged and aided by misinformation.

When all of these things combine, the problem often manifests itself into real-world dangerous situations due to the unrestricted access the public has to the private information of federal judges. The home addresses, workplaces, phone numbers, social security numbers, names of family members, and other personal information of many federal judges is available with just one quick Google search. The lack of privacy afforded to federal judges — along with what little is done by Congress to protect their private information — can prove to be fatal, as seen in the tragedy that occurred at Judge Salas’ home.

“A lot is already done by the U.S. Marshals Service to ensure that judges’ personal information, especially their addresses, are kept offline. That is an immensely important safeguard, but it only works if the security is frequently checked and judges value their own privacy by being less open about their personal lives. For instance, judges have to be cautious about posting information about their family, whereabouts, etcetera, on social media — something that many don’t think twice about. The amount of private information easily available on the internet, I believe, plays a big role in the growing number of threats. Now, it’s so much easier to threaten, not only the judge, but also the list of their family members that appear on Facebook or WhitePages,” said Anonymous.

All of this begs the question: what can, or should, be done to extend protections for federal judges? Legislation should be passed by Congress to ensure another tragedy, like the death of Anderl, does not occur again. The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act of 2020 would be an example of legislation that could have the potential to extend protections for federal judges and save lives.

The bill would shield the personally identifiable information of federal judges and their immediate family, establish guidelines for the creation of safeguards to protect the personal information of federal judges, authorize the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to assess online threats, increase funding for the U.S. Marshals Service to expand its current capabilities, and provide funding to states in the form of grants to enforce the prevention of data brokers from selling or trading personal information. 

While the bill failed to pass in the Senate in 2020, there is still hope it may be re-introduced in 2021 or that similar legislation could be introduced. In order to ensure no other federal judges or their families are targeted, legislation should be passed to obstruct the free flow of the personal information of judges on the internet. 

“If the institutions of our government cannot function without fear of violence, it threatens not only the individuals whose lives or family members may be harmed, but the stability of the government itself. Disagreement is a healthy and important part of democracy, but there are systems in place in which individuals can register their disagreement without resorting to violence,” said Filocco. 

America’s justice system, which is the foundation of the country’s democracy, only works when judges can act without fear of reprisal, attack, or intimidation to themselves or their families. Any type of attack on any judge, like the attack on Judge Salas’ family, is an attack on the rule of law itself; as citizens, it is an alarming reality and the allowance of this violence needs to be quashed if democracy is to prevail in America.

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Federal Judges Deserve More Protection as an Increase in Threats Leave Them Susceptible to Danger (EDITORIAL)