— TON - As Americans grapple with the Tucson shootings and congressional lawmakers reexamine changes in their personal security measures, members of the judiciary branch are also mourning the loss of one of their own — a dreaded occurrence for a community that has faced mounting threats of violence in recent years.
U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was among the six people killed Saturday when he dropped by a community event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shortly before 22-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire.
While it appears that Roll was not a specific target, his death — especially in light of the scores of threats he received earlier in his career — underscored the safety risks members of the judiciary branch at all levels have faced for decades.
And the measures that thousands of judicial officials take every day, many without the aid of extensive funding from the government, show the challenges faced by members of Congress as they attempt to control their own unpredictable environments.
“We get a lot of threats,” says Judge Mary Celeste, presiding judge of the Denver County Court and the president of the American Judges Association, who added that she has notified local law enforcement to request additional patrols in her neighborhood after receiving abusive messages.
“I have a security system in my home. I have a panic button in my home. I have a weapon in my home,” Celeste said.
Security experts recommend that judicial officials and their staffs take measures that range from varying their route from work to home, to declining to put identifying information on their clothing or parking places, to carrying weapons inside and outside of the courtroom.
Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts who specializes in court security, notes that judges face a unique threat because they interact so closely with members of the public in their proceedings.
“When a congressperson votes, that — three, four, five steps down the road — may have the effect of personally injuring you,” Raftery said. “But when a judge takes away your child or a judge rules against you for thousands of dollars, or doesn’t agree with you on a particular lawsuit, that’s a direct personal thing occurring to you as a person … As a result, judges are in a particularly vulnerable position.”
Many judges began taking additional precautions after a Chicago district judge’s husband and mother were found murdered in her home in 2005. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist assembled a special panel of officials at the time to assess how security for members of the judiciary could be improved.
“We certainly are very mindful of the dangers of those that are in public life,” said Judge Michael Kanne of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who now chairs that panel.
But, Kanne added, the financial and personal prices of additional security measures present a puzzle. Congress recently began making funds available for home security devices to all federal judges, for example, but a program for firearms training for all judges has been shelved.
“We have to weigh the costs versus the risks. Constantly,” he said.
In an environment where acts of violence are far less predictable than the system of justice that tries to contain them, funding can only go so far.
“All the money in the world can’t prevent some of these [incidents],” said Marcus Reinkensmeyer, administrator for the Superior Court of Maricopa County. “There’s been talk about more staffing in the Congress and more security equipment. But with that can come a false sense of security.”
While officials in state courts usually depend upon law enforcement as well as state and local funding to augment their security, the defense of federal judges falls under the purview of the U.S Marshals. The Marshals Service — part of the Department of Justice — is responsible for the protection of approximately 10,000 members of the federal judiciary and federal prosecutors.
That burden has become weightier as threats against federal judicial officials have ballooned. According to a Justice Department report released last year, almost 6,000 threats were leveled against federal judicial officials between 2002 and 2008. Last year, the Marshals Service investigated and analyzed approximately 1,395 threats and inappropriate communications — nearly three times as many threats recorded in 2003.
In the immediate aftermath of Roll’s death, U.S. Marshals treated the incident as a threat to federal judges and “provided enhanced protective measures and security briefings” to its protectees, said Michael Prout, Assistant Director for Judicial Security for the Marshals Service. Those measures were modified after it became apparent that Roll was not Loughner’s intended target.
Roll, who had received a special Marshal Service detail after receiving hundreds of threats in 2009 in the wake of his involvement in a controversial civil rights case, was no longer under the protection of marshals at the time of his death, Prout said.
Judges and experts both pointed to the prevalence of information about individual judges on the internet as a primary reason for the rise in threats. Some emerging online forums, where citizens can compare their experiences with specific judges by name, can serve as an inferno for like-minded complainants to air sentiments of anger and suggestions of violence.
Court structures alone can be target enough, says Reinkensmeyer of Maricopa County. His district has seen a jump in bomb threats against the court building itself in recent years, as well as a rise in threats against individual officials.
“Sometimes the court building just represents a government institution,” a place that becomes the target of those who generally distrust public officials, he said.
Maricopa County neighbors Pima County where the Tucson shootings took place and Roll lost his life.
Roll’s death, even as an innocent bystander at a political event unrelated to his work, has been difficult for a community weary of looking over its shoulder, officials said.
“In this time when people are angry at public servants and are facing tough economic times, judges become a visible symbol for their anger,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, the head of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It’s a little bit frightening, especially to our families, who are wondering if we’re risking our lives just to go to work.”