Following Recent Attacks on Judges, the Need for More Security

CHICAGO (AP) - Many judges today work in virtual fortresses: courthouses surrounded by steel-core pillars and filled with officials screening visitors, inspecting mail and operating metal detectors.

Security wasn't high enough, however, to protect the lives of one judge in Atlanta and the family of another in Chicago, leaving their peers around the country demanding that more be done to keep them safe from the dangerous minds their jobs often put them face to face with.

"I don't think security is adequate, I have never thought security was adequate," said U.S. District Judge David H. Coar of Chicago, a colleague of Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow, whose husband and mother were killed at her home last week by a man angry with one of her rulings.

Those killings and Friday's shooting deaths of a judge, his court reporter and a sheriff's deputy in an Atlanta courthouse highlight the dangers judges face, wherever they are.

"Obviously security needs to be examined, because in both instances, there was not sufficient security," said U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman, another Lefkow colleague.

"I would hope that, at least from a federal standpoint, Congress will give further analysis to the question of judicial security and provide adequate funding to give federal judges the security that we need so that our families and we are protected," he said.

Federal Bar Association President Thomas R. Schuck said Friday he expects judicial security to take center stage at Wednesday's semiannual meeting of the Judicial Conference, a high-level body headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Schuck, a Cincinnati attorney, wrote President Bush this week asking him "immediately to assess and assure that funding for security requirements is adequate and that all prudent arrangements for the protection of judicial personnel, their families and our public courthouses have been made."

The head of the conference's committee on security and facilities, federal appeals Judge Jane R. Roth, said her committee has spent years lobbying for more money for the U.S. Marshals Service to increase courthouse security staff.

"We are concerned that there is not adequate staffing to provide the appropriate level at every courthouse," Roth said.

Courthouses always have held a volatile mix of criminal defendants trying to avoid justice and troubled people championing their special causes. And security often is bolstered after a tragedy occurs.

In Chicago, Cook County officials began screening courtroom visitors at the Daley Center after a man going through a divorce killed a judge and an attorney there in 1983. By 1986, most entrances had been closed and visitors had to go through metal detectors; now even judges have to use them.

It wasn't immediately clear, however, what could have been done to stop Friday's shootings at Atlanta's Fulton County Courthouse. Authorities suspect that a defendant in a rape case overpowered a deputy, grabbed her gun and killed three people before escaping.

Federal courthouses tend to have tighter security than other jurisdictions, and typically are swarming with armed marshals, police, FBI agents and court security.

Those who enter Chicago's federal courthouse must show IDs, pass through metal detectors and allow packages to be X-rayed. Explosives-sniffing dogs are on patrol and all mail is inspected.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, waist-high stone pillars with steel cores were placed in a ring around the high-rise courthouse - enough to stop a car rushing at the building.

Outside the courthouse, however, judges are usually on their own.

Marshals furnish round-the-clock protection to judges and federal prosecutors when they find a threat serious enough to warrant it. The Marshals Service said it managed 39 such protective details in 2004.

Lefkow had such protection for about two weeks in 2003, after the arrest of a man who is now awaiting sentencing for soliciting her murder.

But Bart A. Ross, who admitted killing her husband and mother in a note found after he committed suicide Wednesday, hadn't threatened Lefkow and had no history of violence. He was angry over her dismissal of a lawsuit in his long-running court fight over cancer treatment.

A 2004 report from the Justice Department's inspector general faulted the Marshals Service for its track record in assessing threats against judges, calling its assessments "often untimely and of questionable validity."

The Marshals Service notes that in the history of the federal judiciary, four judges have been assassinated, the most recently in 1988 and 1989, and neither of those had been threatened by their assassins.

Judges say threats are a fact of life when making decisions about people whose money, reputations and lives are at stake. Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske says she needed a bodyguard and pulled her children out of school a decade ago, when she jailed a murder suspect with ties to terrorists.

But she adds that "we live in an open and free society, and unless we're going to put bubbles around everybody there are going to be risks."

Abner Mikva, a former U.S. Court of Appeals chief judge and congressman, said that although the recent shootings are tragic, he does not see a need for additional protection outside the courthouse.

"The idea of having 24-hour bodyguards around every judge's house, plus the interference in judge's lives, just is an overreaction," Mikva said.


Associated Press writers Maura Kelly Lannan and Nicole Ziegler Dizon in Chicago and Juliet Williams in Milwaukee contributed to this report.