Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why Are Threats Against Judges On the Rise?

We reported in February 2008 about a planned hit against a judge and attorney in south Alabama, a plot that was foiled when the perpetrators tried to hire an undercover police officer to carry out the job.

The problem of threats against judges, at both the federal and state levels, apparently has gotten worse since we filed that post. A recent Washington Post report found that threats against judges and prosecutors have increased so much that many are seeking 24-hour protection from armed U.S. marshals.

Many factors probably are contributing to this trend. But I suspect that rampant corruption in our courts over the past eight years or so--combined with information technology that allows parties to easily research legal issues and discover when they are being cheated--is contributing to it.

That's not to suggest that making threats against judges, or anyone else, is the right thing to do. But computers, blogs, Twitter, and other forms of technology make it more difficult to cover up corrupt activities--in courts, businesses, government offices, all environments. Judges and other scoundrels who act outside the law would be wise to keep in mind that they can be found out rather easily these days.

Anyone making threats against judges or other court officials should expect to be investigated. But if authorities really want to get at the root of the problem, they might want to check the behavior of judges themselves.

How bad is the problem? Consider these words from Washington Post reporter Jerry Malkon:

Many federal judges are altering their routes to work, installing security systems at home, shielding their addresses by paying bills at the courthouse or refraining from registering to vote. Some even pack weapons on the bench.

The problem has become so pronounced that a high-tech "threat management" center recently opened in Crystal City, where a staff of about 25 marshals and analysts monitor a 24-hour number for reporting threats, use sophisticated mapping software to track those being threatened and tap into a classified database linked to the FBI and CIA.

Malkon reports that threats and other forms of harassing communications against federal-court officials have doubled over the past six years. And officials cite a number of factors behind the increase:

The threats and other harassing communications against federal court personnel have more than doubled in the past six years, from 592 to 1,278, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. Worried federal officials blame disgruntled defendants whose anger is fueled by the Internet; terrorism and gang cases that bring more violent offenders into federal court; frustration at the economic crisis; and the rise of the "sovereign citizen" movement--a loose collection of tax protesters, white supremacists and others who don't respect federal authority.

The problem is not limited to federal courts, Malkon reports:

State court officials are seeing the same trend, although no numbers are available. "There's a higher level of anger, whether it's defendants or their families," said Timothy Fautsko, who coordinates security education for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg and said threats are coming from violent offenders along with divorce, probate and other civil litigants.

The story would not be complete without a star turn from a colorful Alabama judge. Malkon found just the guy:

Sibley Reynolds, a state court judge in Alabama who prosecutors said was threatened last year by the son of a defendant convicted of stealing about $3,000 from a humane shelter, packs the real thing--a Colt automatic pistol. He keeps it under his robe, in his waistband.

"I don't go anywhere without my security with me," Reynolds said.

Are authorities likely to get a grasp on the problem any time soon? I doubt it. Malkon's article indicates some officials remain clueless about what probably is behind at least a portion of the increase:

"We have to make sure that every judge and prosecutor can go to work every day and carry out the rule of law,'' said Michael Prout, assistant director of judicial security for the marshals, who have trained hundreds of police and deputies to better protect local court officials, an effort that began last year with Northern Virginia and Maryland officers.

"It's the core of our civil liberties,'' Prout said.

Prout apparently is blind to the fact that more judges than he would care to admit don't carry out the rule of law--they butcher it. Quite a few judges don't protect our civil liberties--they trash them.

I suspect that some threats--maybe a strong majority--come from litigants who were treated correctly under the law but did not like the outcome. But I suspect quite a few parties sense they have been cheated, use a computer or other technology to discover that indeed they were cheated, and become unhinged enough to threaten someone.

Here's something I know from firsthand experience: Corrupt judges are not a mere annoyance to the parties they cheat. Judges have the power to ruin people professionally, personally, financially--or some combination of all three. Just ask Don Siegelman or Paul Minor or Wes Teel or John Whitfield.

An alarming number of judges show signs that they do not respect the power they hold--or the parties who come before them. It should not come as a shock that some parties do not take kindly to being cheated, and possibly ruined, in court.

A lawyer friend of mine, someone who is unusually honest about the state of the modern judiciary, recently put the problem in perspective after reading about the Washington Post report:

It makes me wonder if, perhaps, one of the reasons that citizens are becoming more aggressive against judges is that those citizens are beginning to sense how truly corrupt a lot of judges are.

Of course, not every judge is dishonest and corrupt, but I've always said that if the public knew how corrupt the judicial system really was, they would 'take to the streets' (translated: there would be violence). And so I'm wondering if this increase in threats against judges is, in part, a function of the public becoming wiser about how corrupt some of these judges are.

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