Responding to brutal attacks on judges, their families and co-workers, the House voted to set aside $40 million a year to upgrade courthouse security and slap sentences ranging from 30 years in prison to the death penalty on anyone convicted of such a crime.
Supporters said the bill passed 375-45 on Wednesday because recent courthouse killings in Chicago, Atlanta and Tyler, Texas, highlighted the need for tough deterrents against those who might try to intimidate or punish officers of the court, witnesses and informants.
"Law enforcement officers deserve our fullest protections," said Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "There's too much risk to leave the sentencing to judges who have demonstrated their willingness to depart from the (established sentencing) guidelines."
Opponents said judges should be trusted to decide which sentences are appropriate for certain defendants. Several lawmakers generally opposed to the death penalty said they support the bill overall but would vote against it unless the provision was removed.
The bill faces an uncertain future in part because the Senate has taken no action on it. President Bush, who supports the bill generally, has concerns about a provision that would allow federal judges to televise court proceedings.
"While the administration understands the public interest in viewing trials, the administration believes (the policy) has the potential to influence court proceedings unduly and to compromise the security of participants in the judicial process," the White House said in a statement.
Across the Capitol, senators considering similar broadcast legislation said televising proceedings - including those at the Supreme Court - would demystify the third branch of government and help the public better understand the judicial process.
Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., want to give the justices and federal judges the discretion to let cameras in their courtrooms.
"The risk here isn't turning courtrooms into a circus or unduly invading someone's privacy," Schumer told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The risk is the danger we pose to our society and our democracy when we close off our institutions to the people they're supposed to serve."
Federal appeals courts have discretion to set their own policies, and courts based in New York and San Francisco have voted to allow cameras, but cameras are prohibited in lower courts, according to the federal courts' public information office.
All 50 states allow some sort of camera coverage of certain court proceedings, according to the National Center for State Courts. Some senators are pushing legislation that would open up federal courts.
Inspired by the attacks this year, the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, would bar the possession of a dangerous weapon in federal courthouses and toughen penalties for assaulting, kidnapping or killing judges or their families. It would impose a mandatory sentence of 30 years to life in prison or the death penalty, for anyone convicted of killing of a federal public safety officer.
It also would authorize $20 million every year through 2010 to upgrade courthouse security, and do the same for the U.S. Marshals Service to hire deputies to protect judges.
The Senate has not acted on the bill.
The bill was inspired by recent high-profile courthouse violence. In February, man angry about being sued for unpaid child support opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle outside the courthouse in Tyler, Texas, killing his ex-wife and a bystander who intervened to protect the couple's 23-year-old son.
The same month, Chicago U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow arrived home from work to find her husband and mother shot to death by a man upset by her decision to dismiss his medical malpractice case.
In March, rape defendant Brian Nichols killed four people during a rampage that started in a courthouse when he held a gun to a deputy's head and declared, "I got nothing to lose."
The bill is H.R. 1751.