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Should federal judges’ personal information be shielded from the public?

Deadly shooting at the New Jersey home of a federal judge spurs bill to better protect judges

U.S. District Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, May 31, 2016. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In July, a disgruntled attorney posing as a FedEx delivery driver fatally shot the 20-year-old son of a federal judge and critically wounded her husband at their New Jersey home.

Last month, a federal judge in Texas learned that his home address had been posted on Twitter while he was hearing a controversial election case. The post urged that an “angry mob” converge on his house.

Federal judges in Utah have not been victims of violent or verbal assaults at their homes.

But protesters recently showed up outside the private residences of Gov. Gary Herbert and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn expressing outrage at mandates requiring residents to wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those are scary, even life-threatening situations for public servants and their families whose addresses and other personal information is often easily found with a Google search.

“I quickly realized that in today’s day and age there’s not really anything you can do to protect yourself and your family. If people want to find you, your information is publicly available, and if it’s not publicly available people get it, they can buy it, they can find it. You just can’t really ensure the safety of your family,” said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Robert Shelby in Salt Lake City.

A New Jersey senator hopes to give federal judges a little more sense of security with a proposal pending in Congress.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., unveiled the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act in September to safeguard the personal information of federal judges and their families. The legislation is named in honor of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ son, who was gunned down at their home. Salas’ husband, Mark Anderl, was also shot but survived.

The gunman, whom authorities identified as a “men’s rights” attorney, had previously argued a case before Salas and used publicly available information to target her family. Salas made a public plea for greater privacy protections for federal judges after the shooting.

Menendez said in September that he promised Salas that he would would bring legislation to better protect federal judges, ensure their independence in the face of increased personal threats, and help prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The bill would shield the personally identifiable information of federal judges and their immediate family, including home addresses, Social Security numbers, contact information, tax records, marital and birth records, vehicle information, photos of their vehicle and home, and the name of the schools and employers of immediate family members.

The legislation would also review efforts by states to protect personal information, improve the ability of the U.S. Marshals Service to identify threats, and authorize improvements to home and courthouse security technology.

Shelby said judges are eager for Congress to step in.

“We would welcome any help that we could get. Any steps that would place impediments between someone who is seeking to harm us or our families and their ability to do that would be helpful,” he said.

The bipartisan measure did not receive the unanimous consent required to pass the Senate in the busy lame-duck session, but supporters vow to bring it back in January.

“We will redouble our efforts to get this legislation enacted in the new Congress,” said James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “Regrettably, every day we fail to act leaves our federal judges and our democracy in danger.”

Shelby, who has served on the federal bench for nine years, said he has seen a marked rise in hostility toward federal judges.

“My goodness, there has been a real increase, palpable, noticeable increase in the number and types of improper communications we’re receiving at the court, especially this year,” he said. “I have no idea what’s inspiring all of it, but it’s real and it’s deeply concerning to all of us.”

Security incidents targeting judges and other court personnel swelled to 4,449 threats and inappropriate communications in 2019, from 926 incidents in 2015, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. The marshals are charged with protecting federal courts, including about 2,700 judges across the country.

Since 1979, four federal judges have been murdered. In two cases, including the attack on Salas’ family, relatives of federal judges have been murdered at home by an angry litigant.

“Anything that we can do as an agency or we can do as a government to help further protect the security of judges’ information and their families, we need to do that,” said Utah’s U.S. Marshal Matthew Harris.

The marshals regularly talk to judges about how to better safeguard themselves online, at the courthouse and at home, including consulting on home security systems, he said.

Shelby said the threats have been most pronounced among pro se litigants — those who file to represent themselves in lawsuits — and who appear to have some mental illness. Others, he said, are often anti-government and believe federal courts are illegitimate.

“All of us who serve in the federal judiciary now know colleagues who have received threats against their children or have had pro se litigants show up at their kids’ schools,” he said. “I think I can safely say it’s on the forefront of most of our minds most of the time these days.”

Anti-government and anti-judiciary communities seem to be bubbling up on social media more, including a YouTube video targeting a federal judge in Salt Lake City that picked up followers, Shelby said.

“It really runs the gamut,” he said. “It’s really coming from all directions.”

As chief judge the past three years, Shelby said many of the complaints or problems litigants have with other judges are directed toward him.

There are also angry people who show up at the courthouse threatening court security officers and others, Shelby said. The federal courthouse was targeted during the protests about racial inequality and other issues over the summer, he said.

Harris said he couldn’t comment about any specific incidents.

“We get episodic threats all the time,” he said. “Some are real threats and some are just people who are mentally unstable.”

Shelby said he’s spent years trying to figure out what to make of doing a job that puts him and his family at risk.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “that’s part of the public service.”