Federal judges want safety protections from Congress

Requests follow the fatal attack on the family of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in July

E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 3:43pm

The federal courts want Congress to spend $524 million and pass legislation to bolster safety measures for judges at home and at the courthouse, including legislation to make it a crime for anyone to refuse a request to take down a judge’s personal information from the internet.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the federal court system, detailed those requests for fiscal 2021 spending in letters to the House and Senate Appropriations and Judiciary committees this month.

The conference asked for $7.2 million for the U.S. Marshals Service to install home-intrusion detection systems at 2,400 primary residents of federal judges, as well as $2 million annually to maintain new systems that have video and recording applications as well as mobile control and monitoring.

The U.S. courts also want Congress to spend $250 million to hire 1,000 deputy U.S. marshals for the security of judges and court operations, and $267 million for the Federal Protective Service to upgrade video surveillance systems at 650 courthouses and federal buildings that house judicial activities.

“We’ve had long-standing concerns in the judiciary regarding these cameras,” U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan, chairwoman of the Judicial Conference’s executive committee, said Tuesday at a media briefing. “Specifically, lack of a strategy for timely repair. There are many inoperable cameras.”

The requests come after a gunman attacked the family of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in New Jersey in July, killing her 20-year-old son and wounding her husband.

As part of a broad spending package, the House has approved $664 million, a $25 million increase above this year to support security needs and protective services in courthouses. Senate appropriators have not yet released drafts of their spending bills for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Last month, the Judicial Conference announced it would seek legislation to protect judges’ personally identifiable information, particularly on the internet, and develop a U.S. Marshals Service program to monitor whether that information is available and react.

“Four federal judges and three family members have been killed since 1979,” senior U.S. Circuit Judge David W. McKeague, who heads the Judicial Conference’s security committee, said in a press release about the conference’s semi-annual meeting Tuesday. “These horrific tragedies must stop.”

In letters to the Judiciary committees this month, the U.S. courts urged Congress to pass legislation that would force a person, business or agency to remove the personal information of federal judges from public records within 48-72 hours of getting a request to do so.

That information would include a judge’s home address, birth date, social security number, property tax records, personal email address, phone number, photographs and more. The conference would also want the law to apply to judicial nominees and retired judges.

A judge would not have to show that they fear harm or immediate threat, and the information would have to be removed until the judge revoked the request, the conference said in its letters to Congress.

To enforce it, the courts are seeking a right to file a civil lawsuit to get an injunction, enforcement by a federal agency and provisions for “limited criminal enforcement authority.”

Other provisions would require federal agencies to prevent the disclosure of judges' personal information, and make permanent a current provision that allows the Judicial Conference to redact personal information from financial disclosure reports. That provision is set to sunset at the end of 2027.

“Unfortunately, threats have greatly multiplied over the past five years and require immediate legislative action to enhance security protections,” the conference told Congress in the letters.

Federal investigators said the gunman who rang the doorbell and opened fire at Salas’ home was a lawyer who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“The assailant had a history of racist, misogynistic internet postings, many targeting Latina judges,” the Judicial Conference wrote to Congress.

Salas, in a video statement posted about two weeks after the attack at her home, urged improvements for the privacy of federal judges.

“My son’s death cannot be in vain, which is why I am begging those in power to do something to help my brothers and sisters on the bench,” she said.