By its very nature, the work of a judge is bound to divide opinions. Even though judges must be impartial in their application of the law and are trained to listen to both sides of cases in order to understand, to the best of their abilities, the full situation before making their decisions, there will always be people who disagree with judges rulings and sentencing.
However, when people are unhappy or in disagreement with a judge’s views, there are correct channels available to those people to make appeals and let their opinions be known. Some people choose to follow these channels, while others are heading in a different direction: targeting judges directly with personal attacks and threats on their safety. In response, federal judges are calling for more protections.
A Divisive Profession
Throughout American history, there have been examples of people being outraged and incensed with judges after judgment has been passed and suspects have been convicted, sentenced, or released. There have even been cases in which judges have been attacked or even killed.
Of course, some deaths involving judges have been deemed to be accidents, but others, like the famous case of Judge Robert Vance, have left their mark on history as some of the most flagrant examples of crimes against the American justice system and those who work to uphold justice in the nation.
In recent times, we’ve continued to see examples of judges being attacked, such as a recent case in Mississippi in which a suspect attacked Pike County Judge Aubrey Rimes directly in the courtroom. What’s more, with the rise of the internet and the anonymity it can provide, judges have been having to deal with more and more threats of violence, often posted or shared online.
More Than Just Threats
In many cases, online messages or threats are little more than hurtful and intimidating words, with the people behind them not actually taking any further physical action against the judges in question. But in some cases, these threats do result in genuine violence. Federal judge Esther Salas was a direct victim of this violence in July 2020.
Salas was at her New Jersey home, celebrating the 20th birthday of her son, Daniel when a man disguised as a FedEx driver came to her home. Daniel answered the door, with his father and Salas’ husband, Mark, beside him. The man at the door, Roy Den Hollander, held up a gun and shot Daniel and Mark. Daniel died later that night on his way to the hospital.
Later on, during debriefings with the FBI, Esther Salas learned that Hollander had actually visited the home that night with the intention of killing her. The 72-year-old lawyer, who was found to have committed suicide a day after the shooting, had written a manifesto, revealing a deep hatred of women and a personal grudge against Salas.
Now, Salas is one of several federal judges leading demand for better security and stronger protections. She has witnessed firsthand what an angry citizen with a grudge can do, learning from the FBI that the shooter who killed her son had found out all about her life using completely legal means and “open sources”, with the help of the internet.
Salas knows that people like Hollander could easily strike again in the future, leading to more deaths and personal tragedies for judges who are simply doing their job. In fact, it was later discovered that Hollander himself had allegedly prepared for a second attack at the home of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Salas has made a personal plea to lawmakers, stating “We may not be able to stop something like this from happening again, but we can make it hard for those who target us to track us down.” She hopes that new laws can be passed to provide better cyber-security and physical protections for judges, reducing the risk of further attacks.
It has been more than 15 years since the last upgrade to security for judges, which came in the wake of killing of Judge Joan Lefkow’s family in Chicago. The new legislation currently being put forth requests $250 million for home security upgrades, along with an extra 1,000 deputy marshals to protect judges, as well as the erasure of judges’ personal information from online records, like addresses and tax information.
Last year, statistics show that there were 4,200 threats aimed at federal judges, with many speaking of serious violence and “death sentences” to judges people disagreed with. It’s clear from cases like the story of Esther Salas’ family that judges are in peril in America today and it remains to be seen if legislation will be passed to offer them stronger security.