JUDICIAL SAFETY

Judges should protect their security online, at home

November 9, 2020

Experts at a recent American Bar Association webinar urged judges to take charge of protecting themselves and their families in the wake of a fatal shooting at a judge’s home this summer. They implored judges to remove all personal information from anywhere that people may find it — deeds, social media, license plates, even bumper stickers.

Threats against federal judges and court officials have more than quadrupled in recent years, from 926 in 2015 to 4,449 in 2019.

Threats against federal judges and court officials have more than quadrupled in recent years, from 926 in 2015 to 4,449 in 2019.

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On July 19, a lawyer with a grudge against U.S. District Judge Esther Salas went to her New Jersey home disguised as a delivery man. He shot and killed the judge’s 20-year-old son, then shot and critically wounded her husband.

It is not known how the assailant found the judge’s home, but experts cautioned that it’s too easy for people intent on violence to find information online.

“Everyone’s personally identifiable information is out there for the world to see,” said Karen Painter Randall, a cybersecurity expert and partner at the law firm Connell Foley in Roseland, New Jersey. “In order for you to be safe … everyone needs to make an effort to protect that personally identifiable information: Social Security numbers, addresses, names, dates of birth” — even biometric information like retinal scans.

The warning came at an Oct. 14 webinar for judges titled “Justifying Judicial Security: Physical and Online Protection,” co-sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division and the ABA Cybersecurity Legal Task Force.

Threats against federal judges and court officials have more than quadrupled in recent years, from 926 in 2015 to 4,449 in 2019. The U.S. Marshals Service protects more than 2,000 judges and many other court officials at more than 400 locations.

On Oct. 27, ABA President Patricia Lee Refo sent a letter to Senate leaders, urging Congress to make security for judges a priority during the lame-duck session. A bill pending before Congress would restrict access to judges’ personal information online, fund security monitoring services at judges’ homes and give marshals more resources to track and assess threats.

At the webinar, Sean Wolcoff, assistant chief deputy U.S. marshal for Maryland, recommended that judges have all their personal mail sent to the courthouse, where it can be scanned; install doorbell cameras at their homes; and leave any identifying information — including personalized license plates and bumper stickers about their children’s schools — off their cars.

Wolcoff also urged judges to develop security plans with their families and to have “frank and honest” conversations with spouses and children about the dangers of their job. “Take responsibility for your own security,” he said.

Capt. Michael Prodan, a criminal investigative profiler with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, urged judges to report any suspicious activity, no matter how slight. “We can’t assess it unless we hear about it,” he said.

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