Unions report increase in violent threats toward judges and court staff

Federal judges are facing more violent threats involving deadly weapons, according to union leaders.

Speaking at the National Press Club on Monday, federal Judge Randall Frye from the Social Security Administration in Charlotte, N.C., and president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, and federal Judge Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge at the Justice Department in San Francisco, Calif., and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, described threats involving guns, baseball bats, cut brake lines and broken legs.

Between March 2009 and February 2010, SSA offices that handle disability claims received 49 threats; individual Social Security judges received 20 threats. At a Las Vegas federal courthouse in January, a man believed to have been irate over a reduction in his Social Security benefits gunned down a courthouse official and injured a U.S. deputy marshal.

Marks could not give the number of threats recorded involving immigration judges because the Justice Department does not make this data available to its judges.

Threats against immigration and Social Security judges are very serious, given the lack of security in courtrooms and the buildings that house them, said Frye and Marks. Many immigration and Social Security courts are housed in leased commercial buildings that do not require those who enter to walk through metal detectors. Entrants do not meet their first, and only, security stop until they reach the court's reception area. Typically one private security officer is charged with monitoring everyone in the reception area, as well as protecting all judges and court personnel.

There are no bailiffs in most of the courtrooms in which immigration and Social Security judges preside. And there are no secure entrances, exits or parking lots for those judges; Marks pointed out she could ride the elevator with someone whom she decided to deport.

The union leaders suggested Justice and SSA increase the number of security guards in the reception area and include bailiffs in every courtroom. Frye and Marks also pushed for higher railings in front of benches, allowing judges more time to escape in the event of an attack, and asked that all courthouses have secure entrances, exits and parking lots for judges.

Frye also stressed the importance of making immigration and Social Security proceedings more visible to the public and media.

The proximity of judges to those in the courtroom can be dangerous. Immigration and Social Security judges are only steps away from respondents and claimants; most Social Security courtrooms are 300 square feet or less. For those who fail to receive a lifetime disability payout of $250,000, for example, the decision could mean poverty, homelessness or even death.

Marks described her court proceedings as dealing with "death penalty cases" in "traffic court settings." Immigration judges routinely deal with respondents who are criminals, mentally ill or have been victims of domestic violence. As a result of a judge's ruling, many respondents must return to the countries where they could face persecution.

Frye said he knows of at least two Social Security judges who were forced to file for their own disability retirement after a claimant's attack.

It is very unusual for judges to speak on the record about issues that take place in their courtrooms; Marks and Frye were able to reveal the data and discuss security issues only because they spoke as union leaders.

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