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August 04, 2023 Feature

The Evolving Nature of Security Threats to Judges

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

Since 1970, four federal judges and at least twice that many state and local judges have been murdered. The risks associated with being a judge have long been a concern for those who take the oath and put on the black robe. In each of the thousands of decisions judges render over their careers, there is usually one party unhappy with the outcome. However, over time, there has been an increase in the number of individuals willing to go a step further and act on their displeasure by threatening or assaulting the judge involved with that case.

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.

Historical Risks to Judges

Our timeline begins in the 1970s, when the Cold War, moon landings, and organized crime activities were significant events that captured the public consciousness. Against that backdrop, the factual circumstances leading to threats or violence against judges have been varied, as demonstrated by the following examples.

In 1970, California Municipal Court Judge Harold Haley, a district attorney, and three jurors were taken hostage in the middle of a court proceeding. The defendant in that proceeding, two prisoners who were there as trial witnesses, and a fourth individual (who had brought firearms into the courtroom) managed to take control of the courtroom at gunpoint. During a shootout that occurred during the prisoners’ attempted escape, Judge Haley was shot and killed, and the district attorney and two jurors were injured by gunfire.

In 1978, New Jersey Municipal Court Judge Edwin Helfant was shot and killed in a cocktail lounge by a member of the Philadelphia mafia. It was alleged that years earlier, the judge received a bribe to effectuate a lenient sentence on the mafia member but instead sentenced him to 12 to 20 years.

In 1979, U.S. District Judge John Wood was assassinated by a hitman allegedly tied to a drug-smuggling case the judge was overseeing. The same year, Washington State Superior Court Judge James Lawless was killed in his chambers by a mail bomb. In 1983, Illinois State Judge Henry Gentile was shot and killed in his courtroom by a litigant in a divorce case the judge was overseeing.

In 1987, New York City Administrative Law Judge George Aronwald was shot and killed when he stopped to pick up his laundry. The assassination, allegedly arranged by a member of the Colombo crime family, had been meant for Aronwald’s son, a federal prosecutor.

The threat to judges seemed to subside slightly in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nonetheless, there were incidents, including in 2005 when a man in a business suit who was charged with rape and scheduled to resume trial before Fulton County, Georgia, Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes stepped up to the bench behind the judge and shot the judge in the head, killing him. As these events unfolded, some observers in the courtroom said the man stepping up to the judge’s bench could have been mistaken as a member of the court’s staff. Before shooting the judge, the assailant attacked a sheriff’s deputy, took her gun, and handcuffed the judge’s staff in chambers. The assailant also killed a court reporter and two other police officers. In another incident the same year, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow’s husband and mother were murdered at the judge’s Chicago home in an attack targeting the judge. The assailant was a former litigant in a medical malpractice case over which the judge presided.

Many security experts believe that some of these incidents are less likely to happen today within the courthouses, given improvements in technology and other aspects of security, i.e., the more commonplace appearance of metal detectors, scanners, and x-ray machines at courthouse entrances today has reduced the likelihood of a perpetrator entering a courtroom with a weapon.

The New Nature of Threats to Judges

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of threats of violence to judges. The U.S. Marshals Service reported that threats and inappropriate communications against federal judges, prosecutors, and court officials rose from 926 in 2015 to 4,511 in 2021, an increase of almost 490 percent. Much of this increase appears to be driven by widespread use of the internet and social media and the polarized political climate in this country.

In the summer of 2020, judicial security concerns were placed center stage with the tragic attack on the home of U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas. A gunman killed her 20-year-old son and severely injured her husband. Judge Salas, the apparent target, was not harmed. She was in the basement at the time of the assault. The assailant, a self-proclaimed antifeminist lawyer who had an earlier case before the judge, had writings on his website disparaging Judge Salas and several other female judges.

In June 2022, retired Wisconsin state judge John Roemer was shot and killed in his home. The suspect had been sentenced to six years in prison by Roemer in 2005. The judge appeared to be among a list of several people, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom the suspect had targeted for ideological reasons. In the same month, a man was arrested in front of the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. The man told police he had traveled from California to kill Kavanaugh. In the man’s possession, law enforcement officers found a tactical knife, pistol with two magazines and ammunition, pistol light, pepper spray, zip ties, hammer, screwdriver, nail punch, crowbar, and duct tape.

Social Media and 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, he says, 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,” Deisinger added. Roy Den Hollander, the man who attacked the family of Judge Salas, found an outlet and validation for his misogyny online through the Facebook groups Humanity vs. Feminism and Men Going Their Own Way.

This effect can spread well beyond the disgruntled litigant, due to the reach of today’s internet, with the possibility of inciting the hostilities of large groups of people not directly connected to a judge 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 over 9,600 recorded threats against members of Congress, 10 times the number of documented threats in 2016. This has been reflected in our news cycle, from the high-profile break-in and assault at the home of Nancy Pelosi last fall to the numerous stories of threats and attacks on local politicians, fueled by anger over hot-button issues such as allegations of stolen elections and COVID. This rise has been so dramatic that the U.S. Justice Department formed two task forces to address the influx of threats against public officials—one dedicated to threats to education workers and another to threats against “election” officials. 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 Washington Post–University of Maryland poll in 2021 found that about one-third of Americans believe violence against the government is sometimes justified, including 40 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Democrats. Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on polarization and violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that “Violent 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.”

An example of violent political sentiments growing more mainstream occurred in February 2017 when U.S. District Court Judge James Robart issued a temporary restraining order blocking former President Donald Trump’s “travel ban.” By the time the judge left the courthouse that day, angry calls had inundated his chambers; and critics had posted his name, photo, address, and phone number online, along with his wife’s name, phone number, and business address.

The next day, Trump posted a tweet on his Twitter account referring to Robart as a “so-called judge.” This was followed by another tweet in which Trump added, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

After Trump’s tweets about the ruling, Robart received over 42,000 calls, letters, and emails. The U.S. Marshals determined that 1,100 were serious threats, including over 100 death threats. The death threats were so numerous and credible that the U.S. Marshals set up an encampment around the judge’s home for his family’s protection.

Referring to Trump’s tweets and the ensuing reactions, Robart said that he thought the president had a right to attack his decision; however, he added, when folks start to talk about “I’m going to kill you” or “I’m going to hurt you” or “I’m going to hurt your family,” “[t]hat’s over the line and can’t be tolerated.”

Politically motivated attacks on members of the judiciary are not new in our history. In the 1970s, for example, members of the Weather Underground infamously threw firebombs into the home of New York Supreme Court Justice John M. Murtagh in protest of charges brought against members of the Black Panther Party. Today, however, the number of ideologically driven threats being seen is unprecedented, aided in large part by the internet’s ability to feed political anger and spread it widely at a speed not possible in earlier years.

Online Access to Judges’ Personal Information

Attacks, such as the one on the family of Judge Salas, increased calls in recent years for measures to protect judges’ personal information, which can often be easily accessed through the internet. That is how the assailant found the home address of Judge Salas. The assailant also knew the routes the judge took to work, what church her family attended, and where her son went to school. This assailant had also targeted and collected personal information concerning a dozen other female judges, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer. The dossier he prepared concerning Justice Sotomayer included information on her friends, favorite restaurants, and where she worked out.

In October 2020, a New Jersey man who had previously sued the U.S. government for allowing “socialists and Muslims” to hold federal jobs was arrested for threatening the life of a federal judge. His communications included phone calls and mail sent to the judge’s home, labeling the judge a “traitor” and saying that “traitors have a death sentence.” After his arrest, the man admitted to purchasing the judge’s address from an “[I]nternet-based service.”

Security in the Courthouse

Over the decades, courts have seen several security improvements; however, many security experts, judges, lawyers, court employees, and frequent court participants are of the opinion that much more should be done. In the wake of events such as the January 6, 2020, attack on the Capitol and the 2021 attack on a federal courthouse during civil unrest in Portland, 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. Several responding judges cited funding shortages as a reason for lax security. 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. Lake County, Colorado, Judge Jonathan Shamis commented, “My chambers are in a public hallway and often there is no security. With minimal planning, anyone could walk in off the street and blow my brains out without resistance.” Another judge said, “Our court does nearly nothing. I carry a handgun with me everywhere.” A 2017 survey conducted by the National Judicial College showed that one of every four judges carries a gun.


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 to over 24 million in 2019. 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 Solar Winds, 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.”

Security Outside of the Courthouse

In the August 2020 National Judicial College poll, 84 percent of judges felt that security for their families was inadequate, a majority saying that their home addresses and other personal information are too easily accessible. Some also noted that local law enforcement should be more aware of where judges live. One judge commented, “After more than two decades on the bench and living at the same address, I was disturbed to find that local police and sheriff’s officers were not even aware of where I reside.”

Effects on Judicial Independence

In addition to concerns for the physical safety of judges and their families, the question exists whether increased violence against judges could have a chilling effect on judicial decision-making. In 2014, the National Judicial College conducted a comprehensive Judicial Security Survey that asked judges “if concern for your security ever caused you to hesitate before taking certain action in a case.” While the majority said it had not, 17.11 percent said it had. In response to another question, 19 percent of judges said that concerns for their security had caused them to change their judicial conduct. Indeed, per retired Nevada County District Court Judge Chuck Weller, one such change in behavior could be the underreporting of threatening incidents. Judge Weller authored a dissertation about court security concerns in which he said, “[D]isturbingly, judges feared that becoming a victim of violence might cast a shadow over their perceived capacity as a jurist, reducing their willingness to report incidents that might identify dangerous persons.”

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, named after the slain son of Judge Salas. The law’s provisions include important 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 final version of 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.” Nonetheless, concerns have been expressed that the exception may not adequately protect the free speech rights of certain government activists and other court watchers who do not clearly fit the exemption language.

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 from Congress’s fiscal 2021 appropriations law to replace judges’ older home security systems with current technology, including video monitoring and mobile device accessibility. In 2021, the federal judiciary received $112.5 million in supplemental funds 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,” said U.S. District Court Judge Claire Eagan, the chair of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference. In the same year, federal courts renewed a request for $267 million for the Federal Protective Service to upgrade outdoor security camera systems at all facilities that it manages, including federal courthouses and other buildings the courts occupy. In March 2023, in the aftermath of the publicized Supreme Court abortion case leak and thwarted attack on Justice Kavanaugh, the federal judiciary sought an additional $12.4 million to increase Supreme Court security.

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 upon 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.

Notwithstanding these significant efforts by federal and state governments, the question remains whether evolving technology and fiery social discourse will require bigger budgets and new types of solutions. Only time will tell.

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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


    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.