Federal judges grapple with escalating threats

Federal judges grapple with escalating threats

Last year, 457 federal judges were targeted with “credible” threats, a 150% increase from 2019, according to the latest U.S. Marshals Service figures

U.S. District Judge Thomas Barber was impressed with some of the perks that came with his new job, including a free home security system, when he left the state bench to serve in Florida’s Middle District five years ago.

“We also get a service called ‘DeleteMe’ that gets our name taken off the internet, and it’s paid for,” he said. “We have an office in Washington whose only job, all day long, is judicial security.”

Barber, who chairs a judicial security committee for the Middle District, has grown to appreciate the precautions even more as threats against federal judges continue to climb.

Last year, 457 federal judges were targeted with “credible” threats, a 150% increase from 2019, according to the latest U.S. Marshals Service figures.

Barber and Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan say the increase is being felt in the sprawling Middle District, which serves more than 12 million Florida residents with courthouses in Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando, Tampa, and Ft. Myers.

“It is a matter that has much more currency and much more attention paid to it,” Corrigan said. “It occupies more of our time and effort than it used to.”

The number of federal judges receiving “credible” threats rose from 179 in 2019, to 220 in 2020, to 224 in 2021, to 300 in 2022, according to the USMS figures.

No figures are available, however, to show how the threats are distributed by state or federal district.

“Due to safety and security of all parties involved, we do not break down the statistics any further than the number of credible threats,” said Brady McCarron, deputy chief of the Office of Public Affairs.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which has a Judicial Security Division, also doesn’t publicly discuss any potential response to the rising number of threats.

McCarron pointed to a U.S. Marshals Service annual report for 2024 that notes that “credible threats” to “protected persons,” prompted 1,061 investigations in FY 2023.

The report also notes a 2021 Department of Justice audit that found “deficiencies” in the agency’s “HIDS,” or Home Intrusion Detection System program.

In 2022, the agency worked with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Judicial Conference of the United States to revamp HIDS.

“The updated program offers more flexibility for federal judges, allowing greater choice in the design of a system and selection of vendors for equipment purchases, installations, and alarm-monitoring. The USMS is working to facilitate that process by having program experts readily available to help guide judges in their search and to ensure the system meets USMS security standards,” the report notes.

Judicial security became personal for Corrigan long before he became chief judge in 2020.

Chief Judge Corrigan

Chief Judge Corrigan: “Fortunately, most threats are not acted upon. Many of them are written by people who are already in prison, but there are a lot that are not, and there are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t mind following through if they could.”

In 2013, Corrigan was watching T.V. in the Florida room of his Jacksonville home late at night when an assassin’s bullet shattered a window and lodged in a wall 1.6 inches above his head.

A disgruntled former criminal defendant, Aaron Richardson, fired the shot from a high-powered rifle while hiding in some bushes in a next-door neighbor’s yard.

Middle District colleagues credit Corrigan with returning to work the next day, “without fanfare or timidity,” and with deflecting public attention from himself, so the public could better appreciate the nature of the crime.

Richardson ultimately received a 343-year sentence in 2016, after police found him hiding in his mother’s closet.

It wasn’t the last time Corrigan was forced to take a threat seriously.

In 2018, a prison inmate sent Corrigan a letter stating that he would find “willing souls who will kill you.” Three years ago, the inmate received a 10-year prison sentence.

Corrigan acknowledges, with some hesitation, that threats have become part of the job. The usual response is to forward the matter to the U.S. Marshals Service, and let them handle it, Corrigan says.

“Fortunately, most threats are not acted upon,” he said. “Many of them are written by people who are already in prison, but there are a lot that are not, and there are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t mind following through if they could.”

When he became chief judge, Corrigan revived a judicial security committee and named Barber the chair.

Before he came to the federal bench in 2019, Barber headed judicial security for the 13th Judicial Circuit. Barber served as a Hillsborough County judge for four years beginning in 2004, and as a circuit judge for 11 years after that. Before he became a judge, Barber served as an assistant statewide prosecutor.

“He and I work very closely together, but he’s become kind of the expert,” Corrigan said. “When I appointed Judge Barber to it, he just took the bull by the horns, and that coincides with the rising number of threats.”

General threats come from people on both ends of the political spectrum, Barber said. They reflect a growing loss of confidence in U.S. institutions, and a coarsening of public debate fueled by the anonymity of the internet and social media.

“I see it in jury selection also,” Barber said. “A lot of people are saying they can’t be on a jury because they don’t believe in the legal system.”

However, most threats against judges concern a “particular matter,” Corrigan notes.

The judicial security committee meets a few times a year, or whenever the need arises, such as allocating new security resources, Barber says. Part of its mission is to educate new judges on the potential threats. As the U.S. government responds to the rising number of threats, Barber is growing increasingly concerned about the safety of his former colleagues. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement doesn’t have a judicial security division, Barber notes.

“I’m telling every state judge that will listen,” he said. “The state is leaving judges exposed to potentially deadly security threats.”

No security system is foolproof, and all governments deal with limited resources, Corrigan and Barber note.

In March, citing the rising number of threats against federal judges and U.S. Supreme Court justices, the U.S. Marshals Service asked Congress for $38 million to fund two new judicial security programs, wire service reports show. Part of the proposal calls for spending $28 million to create a new Office of Protective Services within the Judicial Security Division.

The U.S. Marshals Service also asked for $10 million for a new grant program that would fund state and local government efforts to remove the personal identifying information of federal judges and their families from the internet.

There are no figures to show how many threats against federal judges lead to a prosecution. Corrigan says the U.S. attorney has been responding aggressively.

“If a real threat is made against a judge or some federal officer, the U.S. Attorney will prosecute, and we have several prosecutions going on in the Middle District of Florida right now regarding threats made against judges.”

These days, Corrigan makes it a point to grant interviews about judicial security in hopes of raising awareness, and to keep the issue at the forefront of policymakers’ minds.

Corrigan was interviewed by Bloomberg Law in December for an article on judicial security.

Bloomberg quoted former U.S. Marshals Service inspectors who raised concerns about a transition to a new data management system, and the agency’s ability to track threats against the nation’s 2,700 federal judges and magistrates, as well as 30,300 federal prosecutors and court employees.

Tragedies have also given judicial security a higher profile.

In October 2023, Maryland Circuit Judge Andrew Wilkinson was found dead in the driveway of his suburban home. The prime suspect, who lost custody of his children in a divorce case over which Wilkinson presided, was found dead three days later.

The same year Corrigan became chief judge, 20-year-old Daniel Anderl, the son of New Jersey federal Judge Esther Salas, was killed by a gunman who appeared at the family’s front door disguised as a FedEx delivery driver. Salas’ husband, Mark Anderl, was seriously wounded.

Salas led a two-year campaign that culminated in December 2022 with Congress approving the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security Act.

Strongly endorsed by the Judicial Conference of the U.S. and the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the bill protects judges’ personal identifiable information from resale by data brokers. It also allows federal judges to redact personal information displayed on federal government websites and prevents publication of personal information by other businesses and individuals where there is “no legitimate news media or other public interest.”

Meanwhile, Corrigan intends to continue making his colleagues aware of the potential threats, and the measures available to counter them.

“I said at the sentencing of the guy who tried to kill me that this isn’t about me, it’s about the rule of law,” Corrigan said. “You cannot have a functioning, independent judiciary if the physical security of judges and their families is at risk.”

 

Originally published at https://www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-news/federal-judges-grapple-with-escalating-threats/

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