Threats against judges have soared during the Trump era, and experts fear the worst

Threats against judges have soared during the Trump era, and experts fear the worst

  • The number of recorded threats against judges and other officials nearly doubled at the start of the Trump era.
  • Federal judges involved in matters related to the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago investigation have faced threats.
  • The attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband underscored the threat public figures face.

In his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump took an unusual course in defending his namesake “university” against allegations of fraud.

Instead of deferring to his lawyers or reserving his public rhetoric about the former Trump University students behind the class action, Trump questioned the character of the federal judge presiding over the case.

“I have a judge who hates Donald Trump, he hates. He’s a hater,” Trump said of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, appointed in 2012 to the federal district court in San Diego. A month later, as Trump called for a wall on the US-Mexico border, the future president noted the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage to question whether he could rule impartially in the Trump University case.

The remarks set the tone for what legal experts saw as Trump’s politicization of the federal judiciary. Trump would go on to win the election, and during his four years in the White House, federal judges and other officials under the protection of the US Marshals Service would face a marked increase in threats, according to government data reviewed by Insider.

Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, the total number of reported threats nearly doubled, from 2,357 to 4,542, according to a report by the US Marshals Service. The total has remained above 4,000 every year since, according to the annual report for fiscal year 2021 — the latest year for which data is available.

In a statement to Insider, a Trump spokesperson blamed the trend on the media and liberals.

“The trend is due, almost entirely, to a divisive media that frames every decision made by a Republican-appointed judge in partisan terms, while not doing so for decisions made by Democratic-appointed judges,” the spokesman said. , Taylor Budowich. in an email. “It’s also due to radical left-wing activists threatening the lives of judges to try to influence the court, such as after the Roe v Wade draft was leaked. The media and the left have a disgusting and reckless disregard for America’s safety judge [sic].”

The violent attack of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, on Friday underscored the stakes of the threats facing public officials and their families. Before his arrest, the man accused of attacking Pelosi with a hammer posted memes and conspiracy theories on Facebook about COVID-19 vaccines, the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

In an interview, former Justice John Jones attributed the rise in threats against judges to a “rabid society” in which public figures do not limit their criticism to points of disagreement, but go further to question the character of their opponents.

“It’s completely irresponsible. It looks like public figure malpractice, because we’re dealing with a really fickle public at this point,” Jones, a George W. Bush appointee, told Insider. “I’m sick of the fact that we can’t tone down some of this rhetoric. It’s literally so toxic now that I think we’re going to hurt or kill someone from it.”

Jones, now president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, wrote an op-ed in August — headlined: “I fear a judge will be killed” — after a federal judge was threatened for signing a search warrant allowing the FBI to search Trump’s Mar-a estate -Lago and the private club in South Florida.

After the FBI raid, Judge Bruce E. Reinhardt faced an onslaught of anti-Semitic attacks and online threats, including some aimed at the synagogue where he serves on the board.

“He and judges like him signed up for a job that involved danger, but they didn’t sign up to be killed,” Jones wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A month later, a Texas woman was arrested on charges she left threatening messages on the voicemail of Judge Aileen Cannon, the Trump appointee presiding over the former president’s legal challenges to the FBI’s seizure of thousands of records from Mar-a- Lago, Trump’s resort. residence in Palm Beach, Florida; In those voicemails, the woman threatened to kill Cannon in front of her family for “helping” the former president, according to court records.

That case comes just months after the arrest in June of a man who arrived outside Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s home with a gun, a knife and a zipper. In court documents charging the man with attempted murder of Kavanaugh, prosecutors said the man told police he was upset with a draft opinion that showed the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wadethe landmark case that established the constitutional right to abortion.

Weeks before the man’s arrest, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered 24-hour protection for Supreme Court justices in response to the leaked draft opinion. But as threats to federal judges in South Florida have shown, the trend extends down through the lower courts.

Just last week, a grand jury indicted a Pennsylvania man on charges that he sent a letter to Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Jan. 6 House committee, that contained what appeared to be a white powder. One message in the letter referred to anthrax and included death threats against Thompson, his family, President Joe Biden and Judge Robert D. Mariani of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

This year, at least three packages containing a suspicious white powder arrived in federal court in Washington, according to people familiar with the cases and local officials. Hazmat crews responded each time and determined that the packages — reminiscent of anthrax threats sent after the 9/11 attacks — contained no hazardous substance.

The last of those packages arrived in August and made its way into Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s chambers — a rare breach that alarmed judges and court staff, according to people familiar with the matter. The substance in the package turned out to be baby powder, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services told Insider.

A month earlier, shortly after 11:15 p.m. on July 21, police responded to the home of Judge Emmett Sullivan, who was scheduled to preside the next day at a hearing in a high-profile prosecution stemming from the January 6 attack. at the capitol. In a prank call known as “swatting,” an unidentified caller pretended to be Sullivan and claimed to police that someone had arrived at the judge’s home with a gun, according to people familiar with the incident and the police report.

Officers arrived to find Sullivan “safe and secure,” according to the police report. Bloomberg first reported the “swatting” incident.

Kollar-Kotelly, a 25-year veteran of the federal court in Washington, D.C., declined to comment, as did Sullivan.

The U.S. Marshals Service said it does not comment on specific incidents. However, in a statement to Insider, a spokesperson admitted “that high-profile cases often generate increased attention, including threats.” He declined to give a broader assessment of the increase in threats to judges and other Marshals Service proteges.

“The security of our federal justice system is a cornerstone of our nation’s democracy, and the Marshals take that responsibility very seriously,” the spokesman said. “Federal judges make tough decisions based on the rule of law in large part because the Marshals ensure they can make those decisions without fear, intimidation or retaliation.”

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