An archive of Howard J. Bashman's monthly columns about appellate litigation, with other of his writings thrown in for good measure
What More Can Be Done To Protect The Lives And Security Of Judges And Those With Whom They Work And Reside?
By Howard J. Bashman
Monday, March 14, 2005
Two weeks ago today, U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow returned home in the evening to find the lifeless bodies of her husband and mother, who had been murdered in Judge Lefkow's home earlier that day. Suspicion initially pointed to followers of a White Supremacist group, a leader of which had recently been convicted in federal court in Chicago of having solicited Judge Lefkow's murder.
But last Thursday, we learned that the person who had shot and killed Judge Lefkow's family members, and who had also intended to kill Judge Lefkow, was a disgruntled medical malpractice plaintiff whose suit, brought without the assistance of an attorney, Judge Lefkow had dismissed in 2004.
While on the one hand it comes as a relief to learn that organized hate groups were not responsible for terrorizing the federal judiciary, it remains unacceptable that a mentally unstable individual, acting alone, could inflict such grievous harm on a federal judge and her family members.
What, if anything, can and should be done?
In theory, every person serving as a judge on a federal or state court could be assigned his or her own security detail in order to protect the judge at all times, whether at work or away from the job. And, in theory, around–the–clock security details could be assigned to monitor and guard each judge's residence.
I write "in theory" because these two types of additional security measures are probably among the most costly that could be implemented. And not every judge, or even most judges, would feel the need to receive such heightened protection, nor would they necessarily welcome the intrusion into their personal affairs that such heightened security would entail.
Keep in mind that the judges who receive the greatest amount of security protection on and off the bench are the nine individuals serving on the Supreme Court of the United States. Yet nearly all of those nine Justices drive themselves to and from work in their personal vehicles, and within the past year Justice David H. Souter was randomly assaulted while out jogging alone, without a security detail, on a Friday night in Washington, DC.
Violence against the judiciary, their family members, and others involved in the administration of our Nation's system of justice fortunately remains a rare occurrence, and I will defer to trained economists to determine the exact level of precaution that is appropriate to avert the amount of risk presented. Nevertheless, there are several common–sense security precautions that must be implemented as soon as possible.
First, courthouse facilities must be outfitted to ensure that firearms and other destructive devices are not allowed inside. In the federal court system, metal detectors and x–ray machines are commonplace. In Pennsylvania, most county courthouses, where trial court proceedings are held, also have installed security checkpoints to screen visitors for weapons before allowing entry.
Remarkably, however, Pennsylvania's appellate courthouses have little to no security screening in place. This is entirely unacceptable. Before lawyers and members of the public are permitted to attend oral argument in the appellate courts of Pennsylvania, they should be required to pass through metal detectors and x–ray screening to ensure the safety of the judges and other participants in the proceedings. These precautions should be implemented as soon as possible, before tragedy strikes.
Judges themselves must take appropriate responsibility for their own security, and the security of their families, outside of court facilities. Last week, National Public Radio interviewed Third Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth, who chairs The Judicial Conference's Committee on Security, Space and Facilities, about additional security precautions that federal judges can take.
Judge Roth explained that the U.S. Marshals Service, the agency entrusted with providing security to the federal judiciary, has offered to inspect the residences of all federal judges in order to offer security advice. Shockingly, according to Judge Roth not all federal judges have accepted this offer. Judge Roth explained during the radio interview that judges, by installing security alarm systems in their homes and by taking other precautions, such as having a dog for a pet and having the outside of their residences maintained to minimize hiding spots, can reduce the likelihood of harm befalling them at home. News reports have indicated that Judge Lefkow's home, which the man who killed her husband and mother broke into, lacked a security system.
Our system of justice in the United States is one of the most open and most fair in the world. One consequence of this openness is that mentally unstable litigants can easily initiate suit in cases objectively lacking in merit. It then falls to the front line of our judicial system, the trial judges, to dismiss those cases. While no one enjoys defeat in court, some mentally unstable litigants view losing in court as a personal affront that needs to be avenged violently. Judges, their family members, and others who participate in the system are the most obvious targets for such illogical vengeance.
Although on one level it was a relief that the murder of a federal judge's husband and mother was committed by a suicidal disgruntled litigant acting alone, as opposed to having been committed by an organized hate group seeking vengeance against the system, even a seemingly random act of violence can demonstrate the inadequacy of security measures currently being implemented. Those who care about the security of judges and the security of others who participate in our Nation's system of justice cannot allow the status quo to be maintained.
The shocking events of the past two weeks -- the killing of a federal judge's husband and mother in the judge's home; and the killing of a state court judge, a court reporter, and courthouse security officer in a state trial courtroom in Atlanta, Georgia -- underscore that there is much more that needs to be done to secure our Nation's judiciary, their family members, and others who work in the judicial system. It is my sincere hope that these additional security measures will be implemented promptly, before additional unnecessary tragedies are allowed to occur.This article is reprinted with permission from the March 14, 2005 issue of The Legal Intelligencer © 2005 NLP IP Company.