How to Handle 'Alarming' Safety Risks for Judges?

Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday he plans to introduce a bill that would make it a crime for people to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of a federal judge or member of Congress.

“In the United States, it is illegal to bring a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. Passing a similar law for government officials would give federal, state, and local law enforcement a better chance to intercept would-be shooters before they pull the trigger,” asserted the Republican in a statement reported by MSNBC.

King (photo at right) announced his planned legislation at a news conference with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as they responded to the shooting rampage in Arizona that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed federal Judge John M. Roll (photo, above left) and five others.

Three days after the Tucson bloodshed, the murder of Judge Roll — who apparently was not the target of the shooting suspect, Jared Loughner — continued to rivet attention on safety risks facing judges, whether in their courtrooms or unprotected in public.

Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the District Court for the District of Columbia labeled the Tucson shooting “alarming,” according to a Blog of Legal Times post. It raises questions whether federal judges and elected officials ought to make public appearances without security, he said.

Judges around the country continued to wrestle with the implications of Judge Roll’s shooting. According to a separate MSNBC article, it “underscored  the safety risks members of the judiciary branch at all levels have faced for decades.” In recent times, threats upon federal judges and prosecutors have soared (see Gavel Grab). The MSNBC article was entitled “Judges no strangers to balancing security.”

Judge Dana Leigh Marks, head of the National Association of Immigration Judges, put it this way:

“In this time when people are angry at public servants and are facing tough economic times, judges become a visible symbol for their anger.

“It’s a little bit frightening, especially to our families, who are wondering if we’re risking our lives just to go to work.”

Judge Michael Kanne of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who heads a panel set up to assess ways to improve security for judges, observed, “We certainly are very mindful of the dangers of those that are in public life.”

There are challenges involved with both the financial and personal costs of heightened security measures, he said. Congress has approved funding for home security devices for U.S. judges, but not for firearms training. “We have to weigh the costs versus the risks. Constantly,” the judge said.

Because judges interact closely with the public in court proceedings, judges face a unique threat, said Bill Raftery of the National Center for State Courts. It is a partner of the Justice at Stake Campaign.

“[W]hen a judge takes away your child or a judge rules against you for thousands of dollars, or doesn’t agree with you on a particular lawsuit, that’s a direct personal thing occurring to you as a person … As a result, judges are in a particularly vulnerable position,” Raftery said.

Some news reports have said that Judge Roll went to the Tucson supermarket to talk with Giffords about the soaring immigration caseload before the courts in Arizona. The federal complaint filed against defendant Loughner says Judge Roll was shot “while engaged in performance of official duties,” according to an article in the Main Justice blog. Accordingly, Loughner could face trials in both state and federal courts, the article said.

To learn more about the shooting rampage and Judge Roll, click here for Gavel Grab.

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