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A family tragedy in the Chicago home of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow two years ago galvanized the legal community to demand greater protection of judges from threats and attacks. So far, not much has happened in Congress after several bills to increase judicial security failed last year. But Lefkow is hopeful that companion bills on the issue which passed the House and Senate this year will be reconciled before Congress adjourns later this month. “I would just say that if there is anything that has happened to me and my family that causes Congress to take action and do the right thing here, I would be very grateful,” she says. “Their legacies are the good lives they have lived.” In February 2005, Lefkow returned home from court in the Northern District of Illinois and found her 64-year-old husband and her 89-year-old mother shot to death in the basement of their Chicago home. They were killed by Bart Ross, an unemployed man who targeted Lefkow after she had dismissed his $1 billion pro se lawsuit against the federal government stemming from a medical malpractice claim over treatment of cancer in his jaw. Ross later killed himself. In April, the Senate unanimously approved the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). On a voice vote in July, the House approved a companion bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). The bills would provide an additional $20 million per year over the next four years to the U.S. Marshals Service to hire more deputy marshals to increase judicial security, investigate threats, and provide off-site protective details. The legislation also would create a separate crime for disclosing restricted personal information � such as home addresses, home phone numbers, and Social Security numbers � about a judge, witness, or juror with the intent to threaten or harm such individuals. The bills would allow grants to improve security in state courts and increase maximum prison terms for retaliating against a witness, victim, or informant. But the companion bills have diverged in some key areas. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate bill will cost $179 million over the next five years, but the price tag for the House bill has ballooned to $286 million because of $150 million in state grants for fugitive apprehension task forces and domestic terrorism threat assessment databases, neither of which are directly related to court security. Both Leahy and Conyers say they are committed to resolving differences in the bills and approving a final version, but the clock is ticking as the end of the session nears. The White House already has voiced its general support for the legislation. Since 2004, threats against federal judges and prosecutors have almost doubled nationwide, with 1,145 threats reported so far this year, according to the Marshals Service, which protects more than 2,000 federal judges nationwide and more than 5,000 related personnel. “We’re not seeing anything in the way of a let-up,” says Marshals Service spokesman David Turner. “We’re now having to extend our protective shields further than we have in our history.” Lefkow says the threats are increasing in part because of more pro se litigation in the federal courts. While some litigants simply cannot afford an attorney, others are unbalanced individuals who “are out of touch with reality,” she says. Judges also face diatribes on the radio and Internet from “people who make money trying to drum up anti-judge fervor,” Lefkow says. People are encouraged to believe that so-called “activist judges” are making the law “by the Rush Limbaughs of the world and many others,” she says. Limbaugh didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Marshals Service has installed home security systems for most federal judges and has increased training for deputy marshals and centralized its analysis of threats against court personnel. However, a 112-page report on judicial security released in September by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that the Marshals Service “must exhibit a greater sense of urgency in implementing its plans for improving its capability to assess reported threats, developing and sharing protective intelligence on potential threats, and completing the implementation of enhanced security measures for the federal judiciary.” The Marshals Service responded that it is addressing the issues. Lefkow, who recently published a book of her mother’s poetry with her sister, says Congress needs to act because the Marshals Service has been underfunded in past years, and “judicial security has been a lower priority than the judiciary felt it should be.” Judges are “the face of the nation” to litigants, who often aren’t happy with the outcome of their cases, she says. “Judges are on the front line,” Lefkow says. “Judges are government officials who are face to face with people in a way that a senator, a congressman, the president, or a department executive aren’t.”
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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