For U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow, the brutal attack on fellow federal Judge Esther Salas’ family, which left her husband Mark Anderl grievously injured and their son, Daniel, dead, had a terrible familiarity.
Fifteen years ago, Lefkow’s husband and mother were shot and killed by an aggrieved former plaintiff who had appeared in her court and then, angered by her courtroom decisions, hid in her basement apparently with the intent to kill her. Instead, he meted out revenge on her family.
Federal judges are entitled to a home and court security systems and protection by the U.S. Marshals Service, which has provided security for federal judges and courtrooms across the country since 1789. The killing of Salas’ son and the shooting of her husband allegedly by an anti-feminist lawyer highlights the problem on which Lefkow and the Federal Judges Association have spent over a decade sounding the alarm: judges are being threatened and attacked, often by those angered by decisions made from the bench.
According to data compiled by the Marshals Service, some 4,449 documented threats and “inappropriate communication” were recorded against protected federal judges, jurors and other members of the federal judiciary in 2019. That number is unusually high: On average, the service has seen 1,350 threats and inappropriate communications against such individuals annually since 2015.
Lefkow, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, described the tragedy that befell her own family as “grueling” in an interview with NBC News on Monday. In her grief, she lobbied Congress to do more to protect judges like herself.
“The horror of it is unbearable,” she said of the attack on Salas’ family. The man who killed Lefkow’s family, Bart A. Ross, committed suicide. He left behind a note detailing his plans to shoot Lefkow, and a list of 26 others - including judges, lawyers and doctors.
The alleged suspect in the attack on the Salas family, Roy Den Hollander, apparently also had a photo of another female judge, New York State Chief Judge Janet Difiore, in his car. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered state police to guard the judge as a precaution.
Deadly attacks against judges remain relatively uncommon in the United States. Since 1979, four federal judges have been assassinated. But as their role becomes increasingly politicized, judges are receiving record numbers of threats.
In February 2017, Seattle federal Judge James Robart temporarily blocked President Donald Trump’s travel ban that barred people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for 90 days. Angered by Robart’s decision, Trump criticized the judge on Twitter, calling him a “so-called judge” who made a “ridiculous” decision.
Shortly after, the threats against Robart began, according to the American Bar Association, and he received more than 42,000 letters, emails and calls, including more than 100 death threats.
“Here’s the president of the United States saying this person is not a judge, implying you can disregard his ruling, and saying these people are flooding into the country to rape your wife, rape your children and it’s all his fault,” Robart said at a panel in 2019 hosted by the Bar Association about the undermining of the court system. “I think that crosses a line from legitimate criticism of a ruling and goes into a whole different area.”
Lefkow emphasized that this problem isn’t new. “When my husband and my mother was killed, there was a lot of vitriol directed at judges,” she said, citing right-wing news that stoked sentiments against people in her profession, and a fringe online “jail for judges” campaign.
In 2015, a Houston man shot U.S. District Judge Julie Kocurek in front of her family. Kocurek survived the assassination attempt, but underwent dozens of surgeries to recover from her injuries. Her would-be assassin was a plaintiff who had a case before her court and said he wanted to scare her. According to reports, he had tracked the judge over time.
Liz Lang Miers, a former federal judge in Texas, said “there are a lot of threats on judges, period.” The threats, she added, don’t always come from the biggest cases, like they did in Robart’s case, but often from a case in which someone “personally perceived they’ve been wronged.”
“It can seem to be spurred by an order someone misperceives or a ruling they think is an attack, as opposed to just understanding the justice system,” she said.
Lang Miers and Lefkow both offered their support for Salas.
“There are no words that will allay the grief that Judge Salas and her husband must bear after losing their son to gun violence,” Lefkow said. “I suppose if it’s any comfort, I can only say that they are not alone.”
CORRECTION (Aug. 3, 2020, 1:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who received documented threats and inappropriate communications as tracked by the Marshals Service. It was federal judges, jurors and other members of the federal judiciary, not just judges.