The deadly attack on the family of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in New Jersey on Sunday came amid skyrocketing threats against federal judges, whose security is overseen by an increasingly stretched federal agency that says it needs more help assessing when to deploy protective resources.
The killing of Daniel Anderl, a 20-year-old rising junior at Catholic University and Salas’ son, and the shooting of the judge’s husband highlight growing dangers for the federal judiciary in the internet era, when judges’ home addresses are often just a few clicks away. (ABC and CNN reported Monday that the suspected gunman died of what authorities believe was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.)
The U.S. Marshals Service, which falls under the umbrella of the Justice Department, is charged with protecting federal judges. Members of the federal judiciary rarely have security around the clock and typically only receive individual protection outside the courthouse when there’s a heightened threat to their lives.
In the 2019 fiscal year, the Marshals Service said there were 4,449 threats and inappropriate communications against its protected persons. That’s a huge spike from 2015 when it logged just 926 threats. The jump, according to the agency, was at least partially attributable to “improved effectiveness in data collection and reporting of potential threats.”
But the number of significant threats that triggered a “predicate protective investigation” has also risen, spiking to 531 in 2018 (and up from 305 in 2015). Of those 305 threat investigations in 2015, just 17 resulted in threat-based protective details, according to the Marshals Service. The agency has also spent millions improving home security for judges by installing and repairing residential alarm systems.
In a congressional budget request earlier this year, the Marshals Service asked for additional resources to help develop “protective intelligence to make informed decisions regarding the employment, withdrawal, or withholding of scarce protective resources.” Without such intelligence, the agency said, it “could employ protective resources unnecessarily, inadvertently reduce their effectiveness, or even fail to employ them when needed most.”
After news of the shooting broke on Sunday, the Marshals Service declined to talk about specific threats against Salas or protective measures the agency had taken but said it was “responsible for the protection of federal judicial officials and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
A decade ago, former U.S. Marshals Director John Clark told this reporter that there were “more individuals who are more prone to threatening judges” in the modern era.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the availability of information with the use of technology and the internet,” Clark said in a 2010 interview. “Individuals can find out more about particular cases and judges’ decisions. They can use internet sources to find out more about the judge. So if someone is prone to want to threaten someone, there are a number of ways they can find material about a judge.”
Despite what the Marshals Service described as “scarce protective resources,” the Trump administration last year proposed a study of whether the agency should take over security operations for Cabinet members.