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December 12, 2023 Best of ABA Sections

Security Threats to Judges

Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. and James L. Anderson

According to the U.S. Marshals Service, threats against federal judges, prosecutors, and court officials rose from 926 in 2015 to 4,511 in 2021, an increase of almost 390 percent (CNN Ed. Rsch, Judges Targeted Fast Facts, CNN (June 15, 2022)). The risks associated with being a judge have long been a concern for those who take the oath and put on the black robe. But the recent rise in threats to judges, fueled by the reach and influence of the Internet and social media, as well as today’s volatile political climate, stands out as something different than what we have seen in the past. It has permanently changed the way we must approach these issues in the future.

The New Nature of Threats to Judges

Past threats and attacks against judges have often involved disgruntled litigants. Unfortunately, some online groups and sites can provide encouragement for someone to cross social and legal lines into violent courses of conduct. Gene Deisinger, a forensic psychologist and threat management consultant, says that for those susceptible to taking threatening action, the current political climate adds “fuel to the fires that are already there.” As a result, those with “unresolved grievances” may 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” (Matt Reynolds, An Attack on a Judge’s Family Is Putting Judicial Security Center Stage, ABA J. (Oct. 1, 2020)). Due to the reach of today’s Internet, this effect can spread well beyond the disgruntled litigant, with the possibility of inciting the hostilities of large groups of people not directly connected to particular judges or one of their cases.

The rise in threats to judges mirrors the recent spike in threats of violence against all public officials. In 2021, there were more than 9,600 recorded threats against members of Congress, ten times the number of documented threats in 2016 (Rachel Kleinfeld, The Rise in Political Violence in the United States and Damage to Our Democracy, Carnegie Endowment for Int’l Peace (Mar. 31, 2022)). Threats are coming not only from those considered deranged or habitual criminals. Polarized political discourse has hardened to the point that violence seems more acceptable to ordinary people. A poll taken in 2021 found that about one-third of Americans believe violence against the government is sometimes justified (Meryl Kornfield & Mariana Alfaro, 1 in 3 Americans Say Violence Against Government Can Be Justified, Citing Fears of Political Schism, Pandemic, Wash. Post (Jan. 1, 2022)). Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on polarization and violence, noted that “[v]iolent political sentiments used to be held by fringe groups that were disavowed by major political parties. Now, violent viewpoints are held by mainstream members of the right, and are growing in acceptance on the left” (Vera Bergengruen, The United States of Political Violence, Time (Nov. 4, 2022)).

Security in the Courthouse

In the wake of events such as the 2021 attack on a federal courthouse during civil unrest in Portland, Oregon, judges have warned that many courthouses across the country are susceptible to being breached if attacked by an angry mob and that improvements are needed. Courthouse security across the country can vary widely between court systems, jurisdictions, and individual courthouses. While modern security entrances, metal detectors, and silent alarms may be standard in some courthouses, in others, security practices may be largely unchanged from decades before.

In an August 2020 poll by the National Judicial College, almost three-quarters of the judges who responded said they are not satisfied with the security measures at their court. The safety concerns cited include (1) parking spots labeled “judge”; (2) being located in historic courthouses with too many points of public access to chambers, restrooms, and elevators and insufficient emergency exits; (3) deficient or nonexistent security screening, no metal detectors, or detectors placed only at the main entrance; (4) metal detectors that fail to catch weapons; (5) absence of panic buttons and bulletproof glass; and (6) judges needing to request police patrols in their neighborhoods. A 2017 survey conducted by the National Judicial College showed that one of every four judges carries a gun (Anna-Leigh Firth, Poll Result: Judges Don’t Feel Adequately Protected, Nat’l Jud. Coll. News (Aug. 14, 2020)).

Cyberattacks

Today’s judicial security concerns come at a time when courts have become the targets of an unprecedented number of cyberattacks that could potentially expose sensitive case information and personal information about judges and other court personnel. In recent years, cyberattack attempts on the federal judiciary have risen dramatically. In January 2021, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced that a widespread attack that year affecting users of the network management software SolarWinds had breached the federal courts’ case management/electronic case filing system. The director expressed particular concern for highly sensitive nonpublic documents contained in the system, including sealed filings “that, if obtained without authorization and improperly released, could cause harm to the United States, the Federal Judiciary, litigants, and others” (Jonathan Greig, US Court System Demands Massive Changes to Court Documents after Solar Winds Hack, TechRepublic (Feb. 12, 2021)).

Federal and State Efforts to Enhance Judicial Security

In December 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act. The law’s provisions include measures aimed at protecting judges’ personal information, such as (1) requiring federal agencies to maintain the confidentiality of judges’ personally identifiable information on request; (2) authorizing funding for state and local governments to adopt similar measures; (3) prohibiting data brokers from selling, licensing, trading, or purchasing judges’ personally identifiable information; and (4) providing a mechanism for judges and their immediate family members to secure the removal of their personally identifiable information from the Internet. The law provides an exemption to media outlets and others for information “relevant to and displayed as part of a news story, commentary, editorial or other speech on a matter of public concern.”

The rise in threats and attacks has also resulted in a push for increased funding to protect courthouses and judges’ homes. The U.S. Marshals Service recently received $7 million to replace judges’ older home security systems with current technology, including video monitoring and mobile device accessibility (Todd Ruger, Judges Want More Security Funds to Protect Courthouses from Rioters, Roll Call (Mar. 16, 2021). In 2021, the federal judiciary received $112.5 million for courthouse security enhancements. Such enhancements will include “harden[ing] the entrances and first-floor windows of federal courthouses, nationwide, to prevent from being overrun by an angry mob like happened at the Capitol” (id.).

In addition, some states have undertaken their own efforts to increase judicial security, privacy, and personal safety. These efforts include legislation prohibiting the publication of home addresses and home phone numbers for any active or retired judge, prosecutor, or law enforcement officer and requiring the removal of public online information on written request. Other efforts include establishing state-level court security divisions, establishing requirements relating to the certification of court security personnel, requiring judges to establish a court security committee, and enhancing criminal penalties for menacing and assault offenses against judges or any person located in or adjacent to a courtroom, jury room, or judge’s chamber.

ABA Judicial Division

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 8 of The Judges’ Journal, Summer 2023 (62:3).

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Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr.

Superior Court of the District of Columbia

Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. is a senior judge with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He is the technology columnist for The Judges’ Journal, chair of the ABA Journal Board of Editors, and a former chair of both the National Conference of State Trial Judges and the ABA Standing Committee on the American Judicial System.

James L. Anderson

Government Service Attorney

James L. Anderson is an attorney employed in government service. He was formerly a law clerk to senior judges at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.