Judges faced threats this decade on at least three fronts: politics, pay and even physical safety.
Politically, the phrase “activist judges” was a rallying cry for the right. The uproar seemed to peak after the death of Terri Schiavo in March 2005 when then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said Congress should consider impeaching federal judges who declined to intervene in Schiavo’s case despite a swiftly enacted law designed to encourage exactly that.
A more direct challenge arose in 2003 when Congress curtailed judicial discretion over sentencing. A concerned U.S. Judicial Conference said judges’ power was being infringed and called for repeal of key provisions. But the ultimate pushback came in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal sentencing guidelines were not mandatory at all.
Meanwhile, federal judges kept trying to persuade Congress to increase their pay — to no avail, not even when more-sympathetic Democrats took power in January 2007. In real dollars, pay for federal judges has declined about 25% during the past 40 years.
These issues paled when actual violence struck the judicial branch. In February 2005, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow of Chicago found her husband and mother slain in their home. The killer was a former litigant upset over Lefkow’s dismissal of his medical malpractice lawsuit. Judges shivered — and then grew even more worried the following month when Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes was shot dead in an Atlanta courtroom by a man on trial for rape.
The annual number of threats against federal judges and prosecutors has more than doubled during the past decade to about 1,390 in 2009, said Michael Prout, assistant director for judicial security at the U.S. Marshals Service. He blamed the increase mainly on Internet vitriol. Prosecutions of such threats have risen, Prout said, but limiting verbal attacks is difficult.
At the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in August, Lefkow sounded a similar note. She denounced the rise of “hate-mongering” but acknowledged the difficulty in prohibiting speech. Referring to the blogger who wrote that three 7th Circuit judges “deserve to be killed,” Lefkow said, “I don’t know if that’s a threat or not.”
— Lynne Marek