Threats Made Against 'Hidden Judiciary'

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Threats and assaults against immigration and Social Security judges are endangering a crucial component of the justice system, a panel of federal judges said Monday. "No judge should be sitting in a courtroom where he or she may be fearful of physical harm," said Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges.      In one case, Frye said, as a judge wrote notes after a hearing a claimant picked up a chair and hit her over the head, forcing the judge into disability retirement.
     Frye is a judge in teh Social Security Administration. The Association of Administrative Law Judges represents 1,200 judges nationwide that handle Social Security disability claims.
     Frye told the story of one claimant who, dissatisfied with the outcome of the judge's decision in his case, said, "I guess I'm going to have to get a gun and shoot the judge."
Another claimant said that if the judge did not find him disabled, he would have to "take care of him also."
     Frye said part of the problem is that the courtrooms are often not in federal buildings, which have ample security, but in private office buildings with few or no security guards.
     "That's unacceptable in today's world," Frye said.
     Frye said the small size of hearing rooms also put judges in danger. He said hearing rooms were "slightly larger than your average bedroom:" 300 square feet or less.
     Social Security disability claimants are often vulnerable people, including children, exconvicts, drug addicts, acute psychotics, and military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
     "We have people who are just hanging on by a shoestring and see us as their last hope," said Mark Brown, a judge with the Social Security Administration. "We've had a least a couple that said they're going to drive a truck through the front of the office."
     Brown said the vulnerable situation of many of the claimants is aggravated by a delay in hearing cases, caused by underfunding.
     Sometimes, claimants die before they make it to their hearing, Frye said. "It's routinely a life and death scenario," he said. "Quite frankly, yes, it's stressful."
     Administrative law judges have received 200 threats in the past 4 years, he said.
     Frye called for the government to increase the size of adjudicatory hearing rooms, place higher railings between judges and claimants, provide multiple guards for courtrooms, give staff security training, take action on threats to judges, and open hearings to the public and the press.
     San Francisco Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks said that if Social Security judges are the "hidden judiciary," then immigration judges are the "forgotten judiciary."
     "We feel neglected and misunderstood," said Marks, who is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which represents 200 immigration judges nationwide.
     Last year, Marks said 230 immigration judges heard 275,000 cases. She compared immigration courts to high-volume traffic courts, saying judges have very little time to hear individuals' stories.
     And like Social Security cases, the parties are often vulnerable individuals - victims of domestic abuse, unaccompanied minors, or people seeking political asylum.
     "While we're operating in traffic court settings, we're hearing death penalty cases," Marks said, adding that if she orders someone removed, the person may have to return to dangerous circumstances in their home country.
     An immigration judge delivers a decision sitting directly across from the plaintiff, in close quarters. The plaintiff is "right there, experiencing all that emotion, and that potential anger," Marks said.
     Because of lax security, Marks said she could ride an elevator down with someone whom she has just ordered removed from the country.
     Marks said she has heard stories of people cutting the brake lines in a judge's car, gang graffiti in the courtroom, a judge being grabbed by the robe, and someone attempting suicide in the courtroom.
     "What's disturbing, as well," Marks said, "is that these incidents are not reported or tracked."
     She said that as the Obama administration talks about ramping up immigration enforcement, it is overlooking the added strain on immigration judges. "We are often the forgotten piece of the immigration equation," she said.
     Marks called for additional funding and a focus on security. She asked that the agency start collecting data on threats and incidents of violence against judges and asked for an immediate increase in the number of bailiffs in immigration courts, instead of someone "peeking in the door every half-hour to see if I'm OK."