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October 27, 2020

Judicial Security Needs Improvement

Steps Congress Should Take Now

The nation has been shocked by recent attacks on a federal judge’s family and courthouse guards, and the ABA wants Congress to take action now.

The nation has been shocked by recent attacks on a federal judge’s family and courthouse guards, and the ABA wants Congress to take action now.

The nation has been shocked by recent attacks on a federal judge’s family and personnel guarding courthouses, and the ABA wants Congress to take action now to help prevent future violence.  

In an Oct. 27 letter to Congress, the ABA urged Congress to give swift consideration to proposals that would strengthen and upgrade judicial security measures for federal judges, their families, court personnel and those who enter federal courthouses.

Citing the horrific murder of U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas’s son and wounding of her husband, as well as the murder in May of a Federal Protective Services (FPS) officer in Oakland, California, and the recent shooting of a U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) court security officer outside the Phoenix federal courthouse, the ABA warned that each event “represents an egregious attack on the rule of law and on our democracy, which holds the independence of the judiciary to be the essential safeguard of a free society.”

In its letter, the ABA recommended three guiding principles for legislative action:

1.      Supplemental funding should be made available as soon as possible to update essential security equipment and adequately staff critical security programs.

2.      Congress should carefully examine whether existing federal laws are adequate to protect the safety of all persons involved in the federal judicial process in light of the proliferation of credible physical threats circulating on social media. Vulnerabilities should be addressed through legislation that enhances judicial security without trampling First Amendment principles.

3.      Congress should enact legislation that requires the USMS and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) to consult on a regular and continuing basis over the evolving security needs of the Judiciary. Congress also should require the AO and the USMS to provide to Congress annual assessments of the current and future security needs of the judicial branch.

The ABA noted that two current proposals for legislative action address in detail the recommended guidelines, particularly the need for additional funding. One of the proposals is a series of recommendations by the Judicial Conference of the United States. The other is legislation -- S. 4711 in the Senate and its House counterpart, H.R. 8591.

These proposals seek additional funding for security programs, authority for every Article III judge to redact broadly defined “personally identifiable information” from their financial disclosure forms, and restrictions on publication of such information on the internet, enforceable by a private right of action. The legislation would also authorize funding for the AO to establish, in coordination with the USMS and other federal agencies, enhanced threat management programs to monitor and assess online threats, maintain records, investigate complaints and address overt acts of aggression and violations.

Court security is a shared funding responsibility of the USMS and the Judiciary. The USMS pays for the costs of the deputy U.S. marshals who safeguard judicial proceedings and protect judges. The Judiciary pays for the general protection of the federal courthouses and makes payments to the FPS for the protection of courthouse perimeters.

With regard to funding for security programs and services, the ABA cited the Judicial Conference’s request for additional funds to the USMS to replace the existing home security systems for federal judges with current technology and to hire 1,000 additional deputy U.S. marshals. S. 4711 and H.R. 8591, likewise, would authorize funding for home security devices and increased staffing of certain programs within the USMS. 

 “It is sobering,” the ABA’s letter said, “that the last time Congress appropriated money to bolster home intrusion detection systems was in 2005, after the last murderous attack on a federal judge’s family” when District Court Judge Joan Lefkow’s mother and husband were killed in the family’s Chicago home.

Assuring that the Judiciary, the USMS and the FPS have adequate funding to protect judges, courtroom personnel and courthouses “are common-sense actions that can and should be enacted into law this Congress,” the ABA said.

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