By a Biometrica staffer
On Wednesday, June 16, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG) released an audit report about the U.S. Marshals (USMS) judicial security activities, concluding that the department “does not have the resources or proactive threat detection capabilities” needed to sufficiently guard protected persons, such as federal judges. The major reasons cited for the inability to meet its obligations is a funding crunch due to agencies competing over the same pool of funds and a related staffing shortage. The report looked at the period between FY 2016 and FY 2020.
The report from the office of IG Michael Horowitz noted that there was a sharp 89% increase in the number of threats and “inappropriate communications” directed at members of the judiciary between 2016 and 2019. The USMS says it has not been able to keep up with a changing threat landscape that now includes online and social media platforms.
The USMS, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department, is one of the oldest existing branches of law enforcement in the country. It is responsible for protecting the Deputy Attorney General, 2,700 sitting judges (including 800 federal judges), the Secretary of Education, U.S. attorneys, and over 30,000 federal prosecutors and court employees across the country, in addition to securing federal court facilities.
Currently, the agency has about 3,885 authorized deputy marshals and it estimates that it needs about 1,000 more to be able to adequately perform its duties. This represents a shortfall of nearly 25% at the moment.
As a result of the dearth of staff, investigative duties and training are falling to the wayside as deputies struggle with those responsibilities in addition to their full-time job requirements. The protection unit has 43 full-time members of staff, with a further 200 serving in a part-time security role for federal judges. This means that threat investigations are attended to “on a part-time, rotational basis,” the report said.
Another area where the agency is forced to stop short is in implementing key security measures in judges’ homes, due to equipment being outdated.
The department is seeking $33.4 million additional funding and more staff to be able to adequately beef up the judicial security programs. This would impact equipment, training, and help in surveillance and investigating.
The urgency over protecting judges is tied to the fact that one of the fundamentals of democracy is that the judiciary be able to make ruling without fearing “retribution” or “reprisals,” stakeholders say.
According to a report from CBS there were over 4,000 threats to federal judges over the last 5 years, a jump of over 400%. These incidents ranged from hate mail and protests at their homes, to harassment over the phone and even attempted murder. Per the IG, in 2020 alone the USMS responded to 4,261 instances, an 81% rise over the 2,357 instances recorded in 2016. The increase is about 233% since 2008.
The USMS and the protection of the judiciary has been under the microscope since a tragic incident in July 2020, when a disgruntled lawyer posed as a FedEx delivery agent to gain access to New Jersey District Judge Esther Salas’ house. The man shot and killed the judge’s 20-year-old son and severely wounded her husband.
Worryingly, there was evidence that suggested he had been tracking her and monitoring her activities. He also allegedly had a dossier on U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and a list of more than a dozen other potential targets for murder. Three of them were judges.
There are other incidents that have centered the issue as well, drawing attention to it. In 2020 alone, more than 50 federal courthouses were damaged during civil unrest and violence. Over a year ago, a Federal Protective Service guard was killed outside a courthouse in Oakland, California, and in September last year, a court security officer was shot outside a Phoenix, Arizona federal courthouse.
However, legislative efforts to address this shortfall in funds and personnel have stalled. In December, the Senate chose not to take up a bill that would have allowed action to be taken to remove posts online that exposed judges’ personal information to the public. And the $133 million in funding sought by federal judges to secure their buildings in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has not yet been delivered.
In a statement included in the report, a spokesperson for the USMS said: “The U.S. Marshals are responsible for the protection of the federal judicial process, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Ensuring that the judicial process operates independently and free from harm or intimidation is paramount to the rule of law and the reduction of violent crime.”