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Judges Deserve Better Protection

By Jane R. Roth
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page A23

All who work in the federal judiciary are outraged by the killings of Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother in Chicago. The national alarm over that tragedy is intensified by the subsequent horrific events at a county courthouse in Atlanta.

Regrettably, these incidents also serve as vivid reminders of concerns raised by federal judges 15 years ago, when U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert Vance was killed by a mail-bomb delivered to his Alabama home.

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Back in 1990 the Judicial Conference of the United States responded to this assassination by warning of an emergency situation in off-site security for judges and their families. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. In fact, the Justice Department's inspector general raised serious concerns last year about the judicial security process.

Yes, federal courthouses are far more secure today than they were 15 years ago. You can work and visit federal courthouses and feel safe within their walls. But judges and their families don't live inside courthouses.

Attacks against federal judges and their families have been rare, but threats of violence are not uncommon. In fact, the level of threats has risen steadily in recent years, a trend that some suggest should be expected because federal judges work in an ever more dangerous world and preside over emotion-packed cases that sometimes involve distraught and violent people. Another reason may be the all-too-easy access that the Internet offers to personal information about judges.

Whatever the reason, many judges fear for their safety and that of their families. When federal judges make unpopular decisions, we expect reaction in the form of dissent. This is the American tradition, and it has been carried out by pamphleteers, editorial pages and members of Congress. It isn't pleasant, but it's the necessary price of living in a democracy, and we have come to accept it.

Judges also know that the Constitution will protect us from being removed from office or having our salaries reduced because of disagreement with our decisions. But none expects that upholding justice will evoke violence against us or our loved ones.

Who do we expect to protect us from physical harm? The words of the Constitution cannot. The U.S. Marshals Service must. This has been the clear responsibility of the Marshals Service since its creation in 1789. We also expect our safety to be a matter of great interest to the president, the attorney general, executive branch policymakers and Congress.

For too long, the Marshals Service has been understaffed and underfunded -- a chronic ailment that hampers judicial security. Federal judges expect Justice Department leaders to address that problem, and they expect Congress to appropriate the necessary funding to ensure that U.S. marshals can do their job with the utmost efficiency.

The public has come to expect a federal judiciary dedicated to the rule of law and judges who are pledged to serve justice without partiality. Judges, in turn, expect to serve without fear of retaliation. The Constitution has protected us well for more than two centuries. Now we need help from Congress to fully fund the Marshals Service's judicial security program and the off-site security enhancements judges need.

The writer, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, chairs the security and facilities committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States.


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