Threats against federal judges and other court employees have reached record numbers, the U.S. Marshals Service says.
The number of threats in fiscal year 2005 increased 63% from 2003. Marshals investigated 953 threats and inappropriate communications in 2005. Threats this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, are outpacing last year: Marshals have investigated 822 incidents.
«It seems like every few months there’s some type of major threat to a judge,» says U.S. Marshals Service Director John Clark. «It’s very clear to me that we need to continue to be vigilant.»
The Marshals Service, charged with protecting federal judges, prosecutors, jurors and other court employees, has tripled its number of threat investigators and analysts from eight to 25 to respond to the threats, says Donald Horton, chief inspector for the Marshals’ Office of Protective Intelligence. A 24-hour threat analysis and intelligence center with new technology becomes fully operational in October, Clark says. «We’re striving for faster, real-time analysis,» he says.
«All threats can be evaluated within a 24-hour period if not instantly,» Horton says.
He attributes the increase in threats to more litigation, more aggressive communication from people with complaints against judges, easier access to judges’ information and improved reporting of threats.
Recent high-profile shootings have drawn national attention to judicial security and underscored weaknesses in judicial protection.
In February 2005, a man with a history of threatening letters and angry court filings broke into U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow’s house in Chicago and killed her husband and mother. The man killed himself nine days later during a traffic stop in Wisconsin.
A year before the killings, a U.S. Justice Department inspector general’s report criticized the marshals’ threat assessment process as «untimely and of questionable validity.»
The inspector general found that the marshals failed to meet their own time standards in more than 73% of the threat assessment cases.
Congress responded to the Lefkow murders by approving nearly $12 million to install security systems at judges’ homes. Congress also is considering other security proposals, including tougher criminal penalties for people convicted of threatening judges.
State judges, who are not under the marshals’ protection, also are vulnerable. In June, Washoe, Nev., family court Judge Chuck Weller was shot in court chambers.