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Panel highlights threats to judges amid rising tensions

A poll by the National Judicial College found 71% of judges have received an inappropriate communication related to their position and 56% have been threatened.

(CN) — An impending Supreme Court abortion ruling has drawn protesters and armed men to the homes of its justices. But receiving threats is an unfortunate part of the job for judges at all levels and a judicial security expert advised them how to mitigate risk in a panel discussion Thursday.

Of the thousands of judges in the United States, the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court have the most extensive security detail--U.S. deputy marshals are stationed near their homes around the clock watching for any threats.

Dressed in black, one stepped out of a taxi in front of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Maryland home the morning of June 8 with a backpack and a suitcase containing a tactical vest, a knife, a pistol and ammunition, duct tape and other items.

After two marshals posted nearby scared him off, Nicholas Roske, 26, called 911 and said he was suicidal and had traveled from California to assassinate a Supreme Court justice.

He was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he told police he had planned to kill Kavanaugh and then himself due to his anger over the leaked draft opinion indicating the court’s conservative majority plans to overturn abortion rights established by the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, according to court records.

Speaking Thursday in an online panel put on by the American Bar Association, John Muffler, owner of Tampa-based Aequitas Global Security LLC, explained that school and workplace shooters are usually motivated to attack by a real or perceived grievance.

“But with the courts and for judges it’s built in,” Muffler said. “There’s going to be a grievance. Somebody’s not going to like how this decision went. And so with a court, the pathway to violence – the first step – is already there.”

Nannette Brown, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, said on the panel she has become very attuned to security threats in her 11 years on the federal bench. She runs drills with her law clerks for what to do if a defendant or litigant goes haywire during a trial.

She has trained herself to consider worst-case scenarios and that even in federal courthouses, where everyone entering who is not a court employee with a badge are screened with metal detectors, anything can be turned into a weapon.

“Maybe it is an overreaction,” she said. “But in a small hallway where prisoners are taken into my courtroom I realized I had photographs on the wall, glass framed pictures. And one day I looked at them and I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’”

“Because they were really big,” she continued. “And I thought, ‘What if someone broke loose. All they would have to do was to break that glass.’ … Unfortunately we have to think of things like that.”

Muffler stressed judges need to ensure they have an open dialogue with their staff.

He noted the bailiff of Travis County Judge Julie H. Kocurek in Texas received an email in early November 2015 that a defendant in her court had threatened to murder her. But for some reason he did not tell her.

A few days later, Chimene Onyeri, wearing a mask and hoody, ambushed and shot Kocurek as she pulled up in her car to her gated driveway. She returned to the bench in February 2016 after undergoing 26 surgeries. Onyeri was sentenced to life in federal prison.

Muffler said Onyeri had learned where Kocurek lived from searching the internet.

Online data also led attorney Roy Hollander to the New Jersey home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas on July 19, 2020. Dressed in a FedEx uniform, Hollander fatally shot Salas’ son and critically wounded her husband before committing suicide.

Salas is urging Congress to pass the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, named for her son, which would protect judges’ home addresses and Social Security numbers from public disclosure. The shootings prompted New Jersey officials to pass a similar law in November 2020.

Speaking on the ABA panel, Karen Khalil, a state judge in Redford Township, Michigan, said she has no social media accounts and if any organizations invite her to speak at their events she advises them not to publicize it.

“So if they’re going to put it out about you, it would be best to put it out after the event, rather than before the event, listing you as the invitee or the speaker or whatever. … Nothing online ahead of time,” she said.

Muffler, the judicial security expert, said judges also need to be careful about the data they share offline.

He warned they should not put any bumper stickers on their car like the popular stick figure cartoons representing how many children and pets a vehicle owner has.

“If you are a public figure as a judge I don’t recommend putting anything on your car. Not what law school you went to, not how many kids you have, not that you have five cats,” Muffler cautioned. “Nothing whatsoever should be put on your car.”

He laughed about the judge vanity plates he has collected over the years and occasionally shows in presentations he gives to jurists across the country.

“This is a self-inflicted wound,” he said. “Again, you are advertising who you are and in today’s day and age when everybody has a video camera, probably not the best thing to be advertising.”

Muffler underscored a person aggrieved by a judge’s ruling might seek revenge within days or wait years to settle their score.

John Roemer retired in 2017 after a long career as circuit court judge in Juneau County, Wisconsin.

On June 5, Douglas Uhde – who Roemer had sentenced to six years in prison in 2005 after he pleaded guilty to burglary-armed with a dangerous weapon and other charges – went to the retired jurist’s home, zip-tied him to a chair and fatally shot him.

Police found Uhde in the home’s basement with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“This person came back and found out where he lived,” Muffler said, as 4,000 people tuned into the ABA webinar. “We don’t know how he found out. But we can assume he got it from the internet.”

The panel’s moderator Linda Bell, a state judge in Clark County, Nevada, advised for judges to be friendly with their neighbors so they can look out for any threats. She said her neighbors across the street work nights and will tell her if one of her her kids leaves her garage or gate open.

“So I really think it’s helpful to have those relationships with the people who live around you, because they can be a really good source of information as well,” she said.

The Supreme Court’s pending abortion ruling and the public’s reaction to the leaked opinion has shone a spotlight on the dangers facing the nation’s highest court.

But Muffler pointed out for all manner of judges receiving threats comes with the job.

“According to research from the National Judicial College that came out this year, 71% of judges have received an inappropriate communication related to their position, 56% have received a threat,” he said.

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