Federal Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow on Monday addressed the risks to those who sit on the bench following the Sunday shooting of a US district judge’s family members – a case that appears similar to the one that left her own mother and husband dead 15 years ago.
On Monday, she told CNN that being a jurist is still a dangerous job – an assertion borne out in the numbers of threats to court officials and the killing of US District Judge Esther Salas’ son on Sunday by a lawyer who had appeared before Salas and had focused some anger toward her.
“There’s no way to have 100% security,” Lefkow said in a short phone interview with CNN. “People don’t litigate over small things that don’t matter to them. They litigate over things that matter a lot to them. If they lose, they can be enraged.”
Lefkow, now partly retired, testified before Congress calling for more resources to protect judges shortly after a gunman killed her family members inside her home as he was looking for her. She said Congress then increased funding for the US Marshals Service, and home security systems are available to judges who want them. She commended how the Marshals have taken additional threats she’s received seriously in recent years.
Still, the Marshals Service has reported threats to judges growing exponentially in the last five years. Threats and inappropriate comments made to the judiciary have nearly doubled – to about 4,500 last year – since 2016. The US Marshals are tasked with protecting more than 2,700 judges, as well as 30,000 federal prosecutors and other court officials.
Before Sunday, Lefkow was among five federal judges since 1978 victimized by an assassination.
In her family’s case, the gunman, who later killed himself, was a former plaintiff whose case Lefkow had dismissed.
“It’s easy to go shoot someone in this society,” she added on Monday. “We glorify violence and we don’t regulate guns. The bridge is not far away.”
Salas’ son was killed and her husband wounded Sunday in a shooting at their home. The gunman, a lawyer who told others he was terminally ill and once handled a still-ongoing case before Salas in New Jersey’s Federal District Court, had come to their door in North Brunswick, New Jersey, appearing to wear a FedEx uniform.
Less than 24 hours later, the man had shot himself in upstate New York. He had written negatively about the judge in racist and sexist terms, had a FedEx box addressed to her in his car and posted extensively online decrying feminists and women’s rights. He had also unsuccessfully sued media organizations including CNN in 2017 over what he called “false and misleading news reports” about Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.
Trump has repeatedly criticized judges, leading to hand-wringing over the attacks several times. After the President tweeted to blame a judge for an immigration ruling in 2017, court officials concerned with judicial security pushed back at the political climate. One former US Marshal told CNN at the time that he noticed “a direct correlation between threats and inappropriate communications to judges stemming from the negative rhetoric of public officials.”
Later, Trump tweeted accusations of bias about the judge presiding over the criminal trial of his friend Roger Stone, to whom the President recently granted clemency, sparing Stone from serving his prison sentence.
Following the killings at Lefkow’s home in 2005, the Chicago-based judge publicly connected in her Senate testimony threats to her and her colleagues’ safety to an erosion of respect from public figures, including televangelist Pat Robertson, who had compared liberals on the federal courts that year to Islamic terrorists.
The reaction to the Salas family shooting, however, is still in its early hours.
Attorney General William Barr said in a statement Monday, “This kind of lawless, evil action carried out against a member of the federal judiciary will not be tolerated.”
The White House which has not yet publicly commented on the Salas case.
CNN has reached out to the White House.
In recent years, one federal judge has been killed in a shooting, John Roll, who was one of six people killed at a public event for US Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona in 2011.
After Roll’s death, US Chief Justice John Roberts said it was “a somber reminder of the importance of the rule of law and the sacrifices of those who work to secure it.”
A top federal court system administrator reminded judges in a public statement Monday to consult with the Marshals about security measures.
“We are in close communication with the US Marshals Service about this incident and their investigation,” said James C. Duff, the director of the court’s system administrative office.
Lefkow on Monday also shared her thoughts for Salas.
“I want her to know that she’s not alone, and that of course I would do anything I could to help her, although I know there are no words that will alleviate the grief that she and her husband must bear after losing their beloved son,” Lefkow told CNN.
“The guilt you feel because of your judicial office, that that happened – and yet an innocent person was the victim,” she said.
“All I can say is you just put one foot in front of the other and life goes on. There are ways to find joy.”
CNN’s Ariane de Vogue, Evan Perez, David Shortell, Kaitlan Collins and Paul Murphy contributed to this report.