Personal relationships notwithstanding, the life of a judge is of no greater inherent value than the life of anyone else. It’s sad to learn of a judge’s untimely passing, whether from COVID or a car accident, It’s sad to learn of a judge’s passing from natural causes. It’s the same sadness that does, or should, apply to the loss of any human life. But as United States District Judge Esther Salas writes, there is an additional concern when someone, litigant or lawyer, targets a judge for harm.
Then the doorbell rang. Daniel raced up the stairs. Seconds later, as I stood alone in our basement, my beloved son was shot to death. Mark Anderl, my husband of 25 years, was shot three times and critically injured.
This tragedy, every mother’s worst nightmare, happened for a reason wholly unrelated to either my husband or my son, but because of my job: I am a United States District Court judge. A lawyer who had appeared before me was angered by the pace of a lawsuit he had filed in my court. He came to my home seeking revenge.
The very idea of harming a judge is so removed from my reality as to be inconceivable. The thought of finding a judge’s home address, identifying their family members, would never enter my mind. They are judges, sure. They can be found in their courtrooms. We may argue our hearts out before them, and maybe win, maybe lose, but that’s where it ends. It would never, but never, go beyond that point. At least that’s how someone like me would see it.
But things are different now. Violence, threats, pressure, both public and private, have gone more mainstream. People now take their grievances, which know no bounds, to people’s homes. They protest on their street in the middle of the night, their children and neighbors be damned. They scream at them in restaurants. They threaten harm. They do harm. Lines that once were uncrossable no longer exist. Everyone is fair game. Wherever they are is fair game. Their families, friends, neighbors and business associates, all fair game when the cause is existential and the unduly passionate dream of martyrdom for their cause.
It’s bad enough when it comes to elected officials. It’s bad enough when it comes to regular people who, for whatever reason, are perceived as enemies, whether of the state or of the cause. But when it comes to judges, there’s a difference.
For judges and their families, better security is a matter of life and death. But its importance goes beyond our well-being alone. For our nation’s sake, judicial security is essential. Federal judges must be free to make their decisions, no matter how unpopular, without fear of harm. The federal government has a responsibility to protect all federal judges because our safety is foundational to our great democracy.
The independence of the judiciary, which relates to judges’ ability to make hard decisions that almost invariably anger one side if not both, is one of the only tools possessed by the Least Dangerous Branch. We don’t have to like their decisions, and often don’t, but we have to have faith that their decisions are governed by law, facts and logic.
They may be wrong, which is why we have appellate courts, but being wrong isn’t the same as being conflicted, biased or disingenuous. We must believe that the ruling of a judge is rendered with integrity, no matter how wrong we believe it to be, or they become the enemy in people’s minds. And as the enemy, their lives are no more worthy of protection from influence, pressure and harm than any other enemy’s life.
This is a matter of singular concern for judges. Their duty is to make life and death decisions about other people. It’s an inflammatory job. Once, our respect for the office blunted any passion that would cloud our understanding of what a judge does, but the very notion of respect seems archaic now. From president to pundits, judges have been reduced to partisan hacks unworthy of respect. Not just reduced to ordinary people, but singled out as particularly bad people. That makes their lives that much more easily subject to pressures, and that much less worthy of safeguarding.
Add to our diminished sense of respect for the judiciary the ready availability of finding every bit of personal information about a federal judge on the internet. Home, school, family, church, whatever information you seek, it’s there to be found. And when they take off the robe, they’re pretty much like anyone else, with spouses, children, homes and cars. They go to the supermarket to buy food and the clothing store to buy unmentionables. If you want to find them out of the courtroom, the internet makes it not only possible, but pretty damn easy. Why you would want to find them outside the courthouse is a different matter, but that horse has left the barn.
How to adequately protect judges is a different matter. Whether it can be done isn’t clear, and what protections they are due is a subject for debate. But the one thing we ask of judges, and we hope and expect them to do if they are to fulfill their critical role in resolving the highly emotional issues presented by our complex and often irrational society, is that they rule without fear or favor.
If a judge has to worry that a decision will so anger a litigant, so anger a lawyer of dubious mental health, that her life is put at risk, it will influence her judgment. That, indeed, is the point of putting judges in fear, to influence their judgment. But it goes further, as a judge’s child might be taken hostage or harmed, a judge’s spouse might be beaten. These are not the things a judge should consider when ruling, that she or her family could be harmed if someone is inclined to believe that pressuring judges is a legitimate means of influencing government.
How to address “favor” is another matter.