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Senate Looks at Safety of Judges


Federal judges told Congress today that they're afraid for their safety and aren't sure that US Marshals can protect them. Concern over judicial security has been high since a man unhappy with a court ruling killed the mother and husband of Illinois federal Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago last February. Judge Lefkow herself testified that judges have long complained about security concerns. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.


Judge Joan Lefkow of the northern district of Illinois said she has declined requests to speak in public about her loss until today. She told the Senate Judiciary Committee the murder of her mother and husband had been her family's personal 9/11 and that she was not alone.

Judge JOAN LEFKOW (Northern District, Illinois): I'm the fourth judge since 1978 who's been the victim of an assassination as a result of, what President Clinton wrote to me, `the madness in the shadows of modern life.'

ABRAMSON: Lefkow paused often to compose herself. She said that even though she now has her own security detail, she was harassed just last week by a man in a public restaurant. Lefkow had faced security threats before. A white supremacist was convicted of trying to hire someone to kill her. But she said judges seldom know which defendants are truly dangerous. She said recent attacks by the right wing on activist judges are dangerous and should be condemned.

Judge LEFKOW: We need your help in tempering the tone of the debates that concern the independence of the judiciary.

ABRAMSON: Lefkow was measured in her criticism of courtroom security, but her colleagues were more blunt about the relationship between the judiciary and the Marshals Service.

Judge JANE ROTH (3rd Circuit Court of Appeals): In a word, the relationship is dysfunctional

ABRAMSON: Judge Jane Roth of the 3rd Circuit is chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Security. She said the Justice Department had long refused to share information with judges about security staffing. She said she had tried to break this logjam by meeting with officials all the way up to the attorney general.

Judge ROTH: We have no progress to report in this effort. We still don't know how the staffing for judicial security is arrived at. Our requests to participate in the determination of adequate staffing levels have not been honored.

ABRAMSON: Another judge testified he'd had to pay for a home security system out of his own pocket. Congress has recently appropriated $12 million to pay for such measures.

This director of the Marshals Service did not address these complaints directly. Instead, Benigno Reyna focused on all the demands that Marshals face: transporting prisoners, screening courtroom visitors and assessing 700 threats a year against federal judges.

Mr. BENIGNO REYNA (Director, US Marshals Service): Honorable Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I assure you that the men and women of the United States Marshals Service perform these duties and many others in a safe and a secure manner and with the highest level of commitment.

ABRAMSON: In his written testimony, Reyna pointed the finger back at Congress. He said the Marshals' task would be easier if Congress provided all the funding that President Bush had requested for courtroom security.

While concern for judges' safety was universal, the politics behind judicial nominations was never far away. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama noted that one of the nominations being debated is that of Janice Rogers Brown. She dissented when her colleagues on the California Supreme Court threw out a conviction because the defendant had to wear a stun belt as a security measure during trial.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): They reversed the conviction over that defendant having worn it, and she dissented and they blame her for being an extremist.

ABRAMSON: But by that time, most members had left the hearing to participate in the debate over judicial nominations. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.