Judiciary keeps focus on safety

Security remains serious concern a year after Chicago killings, Atlanta rampage


WASHINGTON -- A year after the killings of the husband and mother of a Chicago federal judge and a shooting rampage in an Atlanta courthouse that left three people dead, the safety of judges and court employees remains a serious concern for the judiciary.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said last week that three-quarters of the more than 2,000 federal judges had sought government-paid home security systems.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for the federal courts, met last week for the first time under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and approved security measures.

The conference authorized security equipment and workers for federal probation and pretrial services offices, urged added training for judges' security guards, and called for the Bureau of Prisons to screen all outgoing mail to judges and courts from federal prison inmates.

A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, David A. Sellers, said that after the killings of the family members of the Chicago judge, Joan H. Lefkow, the security focus shifted from courthouses to judges and other court employees outside court buildings.

In May, Congress appropriated $12 million for the Marshals Service to coordinate such security, including paying for home detection systems for federal judges. This month, the House passed an authorization for $20 million to hire additional marshals for court security and for investigating threats.

"Threats and attacks against judges strike at the core of our system of justice," Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in a statement.

"Judges must be free to make judicial decisions without the fear of physical harm to themselves or to members of their families," said Sentelle, chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Security.

Lefkow testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May on increasing security for court employees.

Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the panel's ranking Democrat, introduced a measure in November mandating better coordination among marshals to protect judges.

Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the Marshals Service had been slow in adopting changes after the Lefkow shootings and had in some cases failed to cooperate fully with the federal judiciary on security.

The bill urges new criminal sanctions on people who seek to harass or intimidate judges by filing false or malicious liens against them or by knowingly posting personal information about them on the Internet with an intent to harm the judges.

The bill would also extend the Judicial Conference's authority to redact sensitive personal information from judges' financial disclosure forms to prevent that information from being used for harassment or intimidation.

"This is a very serious problem," Specter said in an interview Friday. "There is no doubt that judges are targets, particularly for people who have been in their courtrooms who are unhappy with how they had their cases handled."

The Marshals Service did not return telephone calls Friday.

The National Center for State Courts, which works with state and federal officials, had said some state and local courthouses had not followed standard safety measures. The group has urged courthouse personnel to do a better job of assessing threats, updating equipment and planning for emergencies.

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