An attack on a judge's family is putting judicial security center stage

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Salas home crime scene

The crime scene: Judge Esther Salas' son was killed in a shooting that took place at their home in North Brunswick, New Jersey. Her husband was also shot but survived. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images.

After a gunman opened fire at U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ suburban New Jersey home in July, killing her 20-year-old son Daniel Anderl, the judge made an emotional plea.

“We know that our job requires us to make tough calls, and sometimes those calls can leave people angry and upset,” Salas said after the attack that also left her husband, defense attorney Mark Anderl, injured. “But what we cannot accept is when we are forced to live in fear for our lives because personal information, like our home addresses, can easily be obtained by anyone seeking to do us or our families harm.”

It’s not only Salas who is sounding the alarm and asking for greater protections and privacy for jurists. Others in the federal judiciary are taking another look at privacy protections and security at judges’ homes.

Four federal judges have been murdered in the last four decades. Hitman Charles Harrelson (father of the actor Woody Harrelson) assassinated U.S. District Judge John Wood outside the jurist’s home in 1979. U.S. District Judge Richard Daronco was shot and killed in the front yard of his Pelham, New York, home in 1988. Circuit Judge Robert Vance was killed instantly in 1989 when he opened a mail bomb sent to his house. District Judge John Roll perished in 2011 after he was shot in the back at an event for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was also shot and injured.

court security concept with gun and gavel Image from Shutterstock.com.

In 2005, Joan Lefkow, a federal judge in Chicago, was the victim of an attack at her home, when Bart Ross, a litigant in a medical malpractice case over which she had presided, fatally shot her husband and mother. She was newly horrified when she heard what happened to Salas.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no. Not again,’” Lefkow says from her Chicago condominium.

“Those things revived the horror of what we experienced. My children are adults, but the youngest was in high school when this occurred. And you know, these are extremely traumatic events for them, and it revived all of that,” Lefkow says.

Since 1789, the U.S. Marshals Service has been responsible for judicial security in federal courts and protects about 2,700 judges. There has been a “dramatic increase” in threats against judges, prosecutors and other court officers, according to the marshals. Social media has amplified the threats against judges, and a wealth of identifying information can be found online, including judges’ home addresses.

In the last five years, the Marshals Service says on average it has logged about 3,000 potential threats or “inappropriate communications” against judges, members of the judiciary and federal facilities.

State courts typically rely on local law enforcement to provide court security. Nathan Hall, a court management consultant with the National Center for State Courts, says officials need to pay more attention to what happens when judges walk out of the courtroom doors and go home to their families.

“The recent incident with Judge Salas’ family makes us pause,” Hall says. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the easiest place to get someone is not in a hardened courthouse facility.”

‘Hunters and howlers’

The FBI has not revealed a motive for the attack at Salas’ North Brunswick home, but investigators say that Roy Den Hollander, a lawyer who had voiced his support for President Donald Trump and gained notoriety for filing anti-feminist lawsuits and firing off thousands of pages of misogynistic and racist screeds, is the primary suspect.

He was found dead on July 20 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his car in Rockland, New York, about 140 miles north of Salas’ home. Investigators are exploring whether Hollander is linked to the killing of another anti-feminist lawyer, Marc Angelucci, in San Bernardino County, California. Angelucci was also vice-president of the National Coalition For Men, a nonprofit educational organization that raises awareness on how sex discrimination affects males.

Salas was the first Latina to serve on the New Jersey federal court. The judge oversaw a pending case that asked the court to review the male-only U.S. military draft. Hollander had provided assistance to the legal team for the woman who filed the lawsuit. Salas allowed the case to move forward in March 2019. Despite that, Hollander argued in his writings that Salas was delaying proceedings, and “trying to keep this case in her court until a weatherman showed her which way the legal winds were blowing.”

“Salas clearly wanted to further her career by moving up the judicial ladder to the court of appeals or maybe even the Supreme Court,” Hollander wrote.

Angelucci was involved in separate male-only selective service litigation, and Hollander was reportedly furious because he considered the issue his baby.

Threat management consultant Frederick Calhoun says that it was Daronco and Vance’s murders in the late 1980s that sparked his interest in writing a book about judicial security. His book, Hunters and Howlers: Threats and Violence Against Federal Judicial Officials in the United States, 1789-1993, is well-known by people who work in judicial security.

The focus of Calhoun’s work has been on premeditated violence. During the research for his book he studied 3,000 case reports that had come to the attention of the marshals. He found the overwhelming majority of threats or inappropriate communications did not result in an attack.

“It occurred to me that what I was seeing was that there was a large majority of people who were making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention but not actually carrying out anything,” Calhoun says.

He called them “howlers,” noting those people shouldn’t be ignored but may not pose an immediate threat.

“Then there’s a very tiny group of people who do take action. And because I like alliteration, I started thinking of them as ‘hunters’—people that have a grievance and just decided that the only way to assuage that grievance is to take a violent act,” Calhoun says, noting that “hunters” are less likely to signal their intentions with a direct threat.

Not all the details of the attack on Salas’ home are known, but Hollander, would seem to fit the profile of a “hunter”; someone with a grievance who established a clear pathway to violence through research, preparation, planning and then execution.

Calhoun has also written about why judges are targeted for attack. In his book, Defusing the Risk to Judicial Officials: The Contemporary Threat Management Process, he writes that in the eyes of an attacker, judges and other judicial officials can represent or personify the justice system, and the motive for an attack arises out of anger at the system or desire for revenge.

Esther Salas U.S. District Judge Esther Salas. Photo courtesy of the Rutgers University Law School.

State and federal protections

In 2005, Lefkow urged Congress to use some of the $12 million in funding for the U.S. Marshals Service to improve home security for judges.

Fifteen years later, officials and judges are again asking for greater protections, as it has become easier than ever to find personal information online.

In September, the federal judiciary asked the House and Senate Appropriations committees to fund three security upgrades. That includes an additional $7.2 million to install security systems at judges’ homes, and $2 million each year to make sure the systems are kept up to date.

“The existing government-funded alarm systems are badly outdated, lacking any video capabilities to identify who is on a judge’s property,” the U.S. courts said.

The judiciary wants to hire 1,000 new deputy U.S. Marshals and appropriate $267 million in funding to upgrade security cameras at 650 courthouses and federal buildings. It proposed legislation to shield judges’ personal identifying information online and give judges the power to redact financial disclosure reports.

In 2015, Chimene Onyeri shot Judge Julie Kocurek in the driveway of her Austin, Texas home, in front of her teenage son. She was treated for multiple gunshot wounds and lost her left index finger. Onyeri plotted to assassinate the judge after she presided over his criminal racketeering, money laundering and fraud trial, believing she was going to send him to prison.

Kocurek returned to the bench in 2016. Texas passed a security bill in her honor called the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017. In Illinois, the Judicial Privacy Act of 2012 protects judges and their immediate families’ personal information. In 2017, it expanded the protections to cover retired federal and state court judges.

Hall says that the National Center for State Courts has done 300 courthouse building assessments since 2005. In the past eight years, he has not seen security details for trial judges outside of the courthouse, although they may receive a home security audit and personal safety training. He says that in some cases, courts assign bailiffs or marshals to judges during business hours, but that “this is not typical.”

“It would be nice if, at a minimum, if a credible threat was assessed on a judge, that there would be some sort of support in terms of personal safety protection,” Hall says.

If there is a credible threat, local law enforcement or court security could step in, but that varies from county to county and state to state, Hall says. There are no hard numbers on personal security details, he says, but the center is conducting a survey through the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators to get more information about what different courts across the country have in place.

Social media and judicial attacks

John Muffler, a retired U.S. marshal, says grievances can take hold because the attacker is powerless to stop a decision inside the courtroom and will often target the victim at home.

“They’ve lost their case. It’s one way to get that control back,” Muffler says.

Hollander wrote about Salas in a self-published book, calling her “a lazy and incompetent Latina judge appointed by Obama” and said he “wanted to ask the judge out, but thought she might hold me in contempt.”

He found an outlet for his hatred of women in the Facebook groups Humanity vs. Feminism and Men Going Their Own Way.

Gene Deisinger, a forensic psychologist and threat management consultant, notes that attacks and threats against judges are nothing new and the motives can be complex. But he says that the current political climate adds “fuel to fires that are already there.” He says that as a result, people with “unresolved grievances” can feel “empowered in using violence.”

“That’s coupled with the incredible buildup of social media and web-based communication and the ability both to have access to a broader range of extreme thought and communication than ever before in history and then receive validation for it,” Deisinger says. “When public officials are not condemning violence—are encouraging violence—that’s problematic.”

At the 2019 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge James Robart said he received 1,100 serious threats after he issued a temporary restraining order against President Trump’s travel ban in February 2017.

The president took to his Twitter account to castigate Robart, according to the ABA, calling the decision “ridiculous” and made by a “so-called judge.” Two days after the decision Trump added, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

The order inflamed Robart’s critics who posted his personal identifying information online, including his photo, home address and phone number.

“Here’s the president of the United States saying this person is not a judge,” Robart said during a panel titled, “Undermining the Courts: The Consequences for American Democracy.” “I think that crosses a line from legitimate criticism of a ruling and goes into a whole different area.”

Shira Scheindlin Retired Judge Shira Scheindlin. Photo courtesy of FedArb.com.

Retired New York federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, a Bill Clinton appointee, is no stranger to threats. She oversaw the three trials of John Gotti Jr. and the trial and conviction of arms dealer Viktor Bout. She ruled that New York’s stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional. She believes President Trump’s rhetoric about individual judges may put a “target on their back.”

“We’re just lucky nothing more has happened,” Scheindlin says. “When he singles somebody out—basically calls them un-American or un-patriotic—he’s kind of saying, you have permission to go after this person.”

GianCarlo Canaparo, a legal fellow at the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, says that it “hurts the entire judiciary” when politicians attack judges. He cautions that judges should stay measured when responding to criticism and should avoid “entering the political fray,” which he likens to “a mud pit.”

“You might win a fight in the mud pit, but you’re still going to come out dirty,” Canaparo says. “For judges, it’s really important to maintain that all important appearance in the public eye of impartiality.”

In August, a National Judicial College survey of 572 judges found that the vast majority fear for their safety and believe more should be done to protect their families. Some said a lack of funding was to blame and that often local law enforcement did not know where they lived.

Lake County, Colorado Judge Jonathan Shamis was among those who responded to the survey. Speaking from his courtroom chambers, Shamis says that there is nothing preventing someone from entering the room and doing him harm.

“I’d hear the trigger before I or anyone else would ever see the person,” Shamis says. “So clearly for me, there’s an active concern.”

Judges must be vigilant, he says, and he balances his family’s safety against remaining visible to the community he serves.

“If I am controlled by the fear, then I think it precludes me from treating the people who are before me the way they deserve to be treated. So that’s the tension,” he says before adding, “The fear is real.”

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Federal judge’s son killed, her lawyer husband wounded in shooting at their home”

ABAJournal.com: “New Jersey federal judge: ‘Monster’ who killed my son had dossier on us; we need judicial privacy”

ABAJournal.com: “Afternoon Briefs: Bill Gates Sr. dies at 94; federal judiciary seeks $500M for better security”

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