Video: Protecting judges

updated 5/18/2005 8:17:20 PM ET 2005-05-19T00:17:20

Citing the safety of jurists around the nation, a federal judge whose family was murdered called on the Senate on Wednesday to condemn the harsh remarks about the judiciary by commentators like Pat Robertson and members of Congress.

“Fostering disrespect for judges can only encourage those that are on the edge, or the fringe, to exact revenge on a judge who ruled against them,” U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow said in prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Her husband and mother were slain in the couple’s Chicago home in February. Bart Ross, a 57-year-old unemployed electrician from Chicago, committed suicide in suburban Milwaukee in March after leaving a note confessing to the murders. He had been angered when Lefkow dismissed a malpractice suit he had filed, authorities said.

The judge also was the target of a murder plot by white supremacist Matthew Hale. A federal jury convicted Hale in April 2004 of soliciting her murder, and he was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison. She was never attacked.

Congress should “publicly and persistently repudiate gratuitous attacks on the judiciary” that have occurred in the days since after the Terri Schiavo case, Lefkow told the hearing on courthouse security.

Lashing out at judges
After the death of Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents unsuccessfully sought to have her feeding tube reinserted despite her husband’s wishes, some Republican members of Congress lashed out at judges involved in the case.

At the time, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said, “The actions on the part of the Florida court and the U.S. Supreme Court are unconscionable.”

“This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said. “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”

Referring to a different decision, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he wondered whether frustration against perceived political decisions by judges “builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence, certainly without any justification.”

Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and head of the Christian Broadcasting Network, appeared on ABC’s “This Week” earlier this month and criticized the federal courts. “Over 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that’s held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings,” he said.

'Truly dangerous'
Lefkow said that kind of “harsh rhetoric is truly dangerous.”

“I have never encountered a judge in the federal judiciary who can remotely be described as posing a threat ’probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings,”’ she said.

Lefkow called on Congress to increase funding for the U.S. Marshals Service, which protects judges. She also wants legislation to ban putting personal information about judges and other government officials on the Internet without their permission.

Congress should make sure that money that has been allocated for home security systems for federal judges gets to them as fast as possible, she said.

Congress has approved $12 million to install home security systems for the 2,200 active and semiretired judges and magistrates in the federal court system.

“As recently as last Friday, May 13, I was spotted and harassed in a restaurant in downtown Chicago. Had that harasser had a gun, I would be dead today. There is no time for bureaucratic delay,” she said.

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