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July 01, 2024 Vol. 46, No. 5

Bars Lead the Way in Advocating for Judicial Security

By Julia Gray

When Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge John Roemer was murdered in 2022 by a man he had sentenced to prison in 2005, the state assembly decided it needed to act to protect its judiciary. 

A Troubling Trend

Understanding that it is a gigantic challenge to completely protect members of the state judiciary, a bipartisan group of legislators, along with the State Bar of Wisconsin and the courts, decided to take a tech-focused approach to quell harassment and threats: Limit the amount of online exposure to the private information of current and former members of the judiciary and their families.

The state assembly and state senate passed these two bills with overwhelming bipartisan support, which Governor Tony Evers signed into law in March 2024. (A third bill, making it a misdemeanor to protest near a judge’s residence with the intent of disrupting the administration of justice, also passed with bipartisan support.)

President of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dean Dietrich, praised the newly minted laws, saying that judges “keep our Democracy strong” and that the State Bar will “continue to advocate to protect judges” and develop resources to help keep them safe.

Wisconsin is among a handful of states, including Maryland and New Jersey, that have passed legislation explicitly protecting the privacy of members of the state judiciaries online. Similar bills are winding their way through statehouses across the country and some state bar associations are urging their municipalities to act. 

Bars Respond

Physical threats to the judiciary are not new, but they have become more mainstream thanks to social media and a 24/7 news cycle. But physical threats can be the most concerning to the judiciary on the federal, state, and local levels since they tend to be high-profile and steeped in violence: A combination that guarantees constant media coverage. The U.S. Marshals Service reports that threats against federal judges have climbed in recent years, from 178 in 2019 to 300 in 2022 and 457 in 2023.

Experts say that high-profile court cases—including former President Donald J. Trump’s criminal trial in New York City and the ongoing investigations surrounding the events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021—are riling up Americans on both sides of the political spectrum.

How are state bars addressing physical threats to the judiciary? Are state bars doing enough to provide guidance to their members regarding these rising threats of violence? What actions can state bar associations take to educate their memberships besides releasing statements condemning them and talking to the media?

On June 5, 2024, State Bar of Michigan President Daniel D. Quick testified before the Michigan State House Judiciary about the importance of passing the Judicial Protection Act (HB 5724), which would help protect the personal information of Michigan judges and their families from being publicly disclosed. It passed the House Judiciary Committee 12- 0 and is now on to the full House for a vote. (Editor's Note: The Michigan House passed HB 5724 shortly after this article was posted.) Quick says that the Judicial Protection Act is a good start, but more works needs to be done. One way to achieve these goals is through education about the rule of law, which can be challenging due to the proliferation of social and news media.

Quick says that one of the State Bar of Michigan’s goals is to bring attention to the threats since many lawyers and citizens are unaware of what’s happening by focusing on civics, civility and history.

Quick wrote a guide about the rule of law which is on the state bar’s website, dubbed The System of Justice and You.

“We have a right to disagree with a verdict or a case in this country, and if a person has a court case that doesn’t go their way, they can appeal the ruling. Judges are bound to follow the law,” says Quick, adding, “We have an entire demographic that has faith in the system and if citizens start abandoning the system due to the lack of knowledge of how it works, the system falls apart.”

The State Bar of Michigan has embraced this message by supporting programs that teach schoolchildren the basics of civics with mock trial programs. Quick says volunteer lawyers are brought into classrooms to discuss civics concepts with students and run mock trials, with the students playing the principal roles in a courtroom.

After the shooting death of Washington County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson in October 2023, the Maryland State Bar Association Board voted to immediately to prioritize judicial security and partnered with the Maryland Judiciary to support HB664/SB575 (2024): The Hon. Andrew F. Wilkinson Judicial Security Act. The bill sailed through the Maryland legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Governor Wes Moore in April. Judicial security is one of the goals of incoming MBSA President Raphael J. Santini. He told The Daily Record that the Maryland State Bar Association will continue to support the new legislative task force that was created after Wilkinson’s death. 

A 'Collaborative Effort' is Needed

Duke University Law School Professor and Senior U.S. District Judge (retired) Paul Grimm, says state bars should continue to partner with their legislatures to help protect lawyers on the state level.

State bars, Grimm says, need to be proactive and share concerns and possible solutions to curbing threats with other bar associations—an idea that Grimm and his colleagues at Duke Law have a solution for—The Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School’s Defending the Judiciary program. Grimm is the institute's director and sees the program as a ‘collaborative effort’ and a ‘clearinghouse’ where state bars can submit and search for information regarding threats at the state level. He said he hopes state bar associations will utilize this program.

In the meantime, Grimm suggests one serious step judges and judiciary members can take while statehouses consider protection legislation is hiring professionals to scrub personal information online.

CEO Ron Zayas of cyber privacy firm IronWall360 in Orange, California, helps judiciary members delete their personal information online. The company searches databases and websites that may contain a client’s personal information and makes a deletion request. It also gives clients the tools to protect themselves and their families online. The company provides the USMS daily alerts and will take appropriate action if necessary. IronWall360 is currently protecting roughly 3000 members of the judiciary, from local to federal. According to Zayas, memberships from the judiciary are expected to rise in 2024.

Even though the current political climate isn’t helping to slow the rancor the judiciary faces daily, legislation designed to protect judges is under federal consideration.

Recent threats and newsworthy court cases may explain the bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to help protect judges at the state and local levels. The Countering Threats and Attacks on Our Judges Act has passed the Senate on June 12th and is on its way to the House and eventually to President Joe Biden for his signature.

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