Threats Against Judges, Lawyers on the Rise

Marshals and judges are trying to combat increasing number of threats.

March 10, 2008 — -- In response to the growing number of threats against federal judges and prosecutors, federal marshals plan to monitor people who have already threatened state and local government officials.

Threats and other "inappropriate communications" with federal judges and prosecutors are on track to rise this fiscal year for the fifth straight year, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Michael Prout, the Marshals Service deputy assistant director for judicial operations, said people who have threatened local or state government officials may also pose a danger to federal judges.

Frequently, he said, those who threaten federal judges have already been investigated by other state or local law enforcement agencies for similar threats -- a fact that has not always been shared with the Marshals Service.

"There will continue to be a rise [in threats] until we get a cohesive strategy between the Marshals Service and state and local entities to combat these threats against public officials," he said.

The annual number of so-called inappropriate communications to federal judges and prosecutors has risen 69 percent since 2003, with 1,145 such communications last fiscal year, according to the Marshals Service, which protects the country's 2,000 federal judges and 5,000 federal prosecutors. As of the end of February, there have been 525 recorded threats, Prout said.

"There seems to be a feeling of defiance toward many institutions that formerly were considered out of bounds," said U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, who is a member of the committee on judicial security for the Judicial Conference of the United States. "People are more brazen today."

Prout and Hudson said there has been more sensitivity among judges and marshals to threats after the 2005 murders of Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother.

After the Lefkow tragedy, Prout says the Marshals Service began to reinvent the process by which it tracks and combats threats.

A new secure Threat Management Center, which opened in September, serves as a centralized information processing hub that enables deputy marshals and intelligence specialists to better track and analyze cases across the country.

The service is also beginning to train local and state law enforcement officers to protect judges and plans to investigate threats against local and state officials, if asked by local authorities, Prout said.

In addition, the service also hopes to secure funding to build a comprehensive national database to monitor threats on the local, state and federal levels -- which Hudson called integral to protecting government officials.

"The marshals need to continue the development of a comprehensive database of individuals prone by behavior to make threats against public officials," said Hudson, who is a former head of the Marshals Service, adding that the service needs more funding.

Hudson is spearheading a program called Project 365 to make judges and their families more security conscious.

The group has set up security education and training programs, which Lefkow has participated in, to teach judges, their staffs and families how to recognize potential threats and, in Hudson's words, "to make judges aware of security 365 days a year."

The group is also developing a security awareness DVD called "Project 365," produced by senior inspectors John Muffler and Michael Green, which will be distributed to the state and federal judiciary this spring.

The changes come after the Marshals Service was criticized by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.

A 2004 report said the Marshals Service's assessment of reported threats was "often untimely and of questionable validity" and its intelligence gathering and sharing abilities were "limited."

Last year, a follow-up report criticized the agency for failing to improve quickly enough. Prout said the service was already working on many of the issues in the report.

Prout and judges offered several possible explanations for the growing threats, among them the expanding federal caseload.

John Coughenour, a federal district court judge in Seattle who has received death threats, laid the blame on rhetoric about so-called "activist judges."

"That can cause some people who are in the fringe anyway to go over the line," he said.

After the publicity surrounding the killings of Lefkow's husband and mother, judges are more sensitive to possible threats. They are now reporting "a lot of communication that perhaps would have been dismissed and tossed into the trash," Hudson said.

"We're now moving toward a behavioral approach," he said. "Those threats need to be recorded so we can see patterns."

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