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Push is on to increase protection for federal judges

Citing an increase in threats to federal judges and other public officials, state attorneys general of both parties are urging Congress to act. 

The National Association of Attorneys General is asking Congress to act on proposed legislation, the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security Act, named for the late 20-year-old son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas, whose home was attacked in July.

The New Jersey judge was not hurt in the attack, but her husband was critically injured, and her 20-year-old son was killed by an attorney who had appeared before the judge in court.

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“Increasingly, public servants are being threatened with physical violence and death simply for carrying out their duties in accordance with the Oath they swore to uphold the Constitution,” the attorneys general wrote in a letter to Congress.

Bipartisan support in Congress

The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security Act was co-authored by U.S. senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats of New Jersey. Companion legislation was introduced in the house by Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-NJ. 

The proposal would ban the release of personal information about judges to protect their privacy and make it more difficult for stalkers to find them.

The two senators asked the body to pass the bill by unanimous consent on Wednesday, but that effort was blocked by Senator Rand Paul, R-KY, who wanted it to cover members of Congress, as well. 

Paul cited the shootings of representatives Gabby Giffords, D-AZ, and Steve Scalise, R-LA, among other threats. “Congress is threatened, and families are frightened,” Paul said. “Police have to come to my house. … They put a satellite picture of my house on the nightly news, basically pointing out where every crazy person in the world can find my house.”

Menendez said congressional protections should be dealt with separately. He vowed to continue to fight for the Anderl Act. 

“I promised Judge Salas that her son’s death would not be in vain,” he said. “We’re going to make this happen, hopefully sooner rather than later. But we’re going to make this happen.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is an original cosponsor, as is the committee’s ranking member, Diane Feinstein, D-CA.

With the end of the congressional session passing, a staffer for Menendez said the bill would be reintroduced next year.

Spike in threats cited

The attorneys general letter notes that four federal judges have been murdered since 1979. In addition, two family members of another judge were murdered in her home in 2005.

“Incidents, inappropriate communications, and threats against federal judges and other persons protected by the U.S. Marshals Service have risen steadily in recent years, from 2,357 in FY2016 to 4,449 in FY2019,” the letter states. “Increasingly, public servants are being threatened with physical violence and death simply for carrying out their duties in accordance with the oath they swore to uphold the Constitution.”

The letter, however, cited a report from the U.S. Marshals Service, which attributed the dramatic increase to “improved effectiveness in data collection and reporting of potential threats.” 

The report also gave data for the number of threats that rose to the level of “predicated protective investigation,” the most significant form of protective investigations. Those rose from 363 in 2016 to 373 in 2019. In 2017, there was a spike, with the number rising to 531.

New Jersey recently enacted similar legislation, called “Daniel’s Law,” and other states have similar laws on the books, according to the attorneys general, who cited statutes in California, Texas and Washington.

The attorneys general joined organizations, including the American Bar Association and the Judicial Conference of the United States in supporting the proposed federal legislation.

Judge says judicial safety important to democracy

Salas wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Dec. 8 advocating for better security for judges and their families. The issue, she wrote, “is a matter of life and death. But its importance goes beyond our well-being alone. For our nation’s sake, judicial security is essential. Federal judges must be free to make their decisions, no matter how unpopular, without fear of harm.”

Judicial safety, she added, is “foundational to our great democracy.” 

Despite that, she said, she learned from the FBI that “it’s easy to find personal information about judges on the internet. … In my case, this deranged gunman was able to create a complete dossier of my life: he stalked my neighborhood, mapped my routes to work and even learned the names of my best friend and the church I attend. All of which was completely legal. This access to such personal information enabled this man to take our only child from my husband, Mark, and me.”

Guidelines, funding for protecting personal information

The proposed legislation creates guidelines for federal agencies, state and local governments and commercial data collectors to protect the personal information of federal judges and their immediate family. This includes retired and recalled judges.

It would ban government agencies from publicly posting judges’ personal information and allow judges to request removal of information that’s already posted. 

It provides funds for states to cover the cost of preventing the release of judges’ personal information and to create or expand programs designed to protect the information.

The bill would also bar commercial data collectors from selling, buying or providing judges’ personal information.

And the proposed legislation would fund the Administrative Office of the Courts and the U.S. Marshals Service to monitor and assess online threats and address complaints against judges.  

Contact Elaine Silvestrini at Elaine@legalexaminer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @WriterElaineS.