Judges who oversee some of the most emotional cases to reach a courtroom are crying out for more security. Two major groups representing immigration and Social Security judges appeared in Washington on Monday to ask the federal government to do more to protect them from violent threats.
In what may have been the worst episode, a man who was apparently angry over cuts to his Social Security benefits opened fire in the lobby of a Las Vegas courthouse in January. A security officer there died in a hail of gunfire. So did the gunman.
Judge Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, fears more violence could be on the way.
"Over the past four years, there have been approximately 200 similar kinds of threats and, unfortunately, some of those threats have been acted on," says Frye, who hears Social Security disability claims in Charlotte, N.C.
Some of the worst horror stories, administrative law judges say, come from the immigration courts, where people desperate to stay in the country sometimes strike out at judges.
Judge Dana Leigh Marks handles immigration cases in San Francisco.
"One colleague reports that the brake lines to her car were cut while in the parking lot at work," said Marks, who spoke in her capacity as president of National Association of Immigration Judges. "Another colleague reported that there was gang graffiti in her courtroom. During the anthrax scare, an immigration judge received a letter containing white powder. Another judge was grabbed by the robe by an irate respondent. Another judge experienced someone attempting suicide, right there, in the courtroom."
Many people who want a court to give them Social Security disability payments or a chance to remain in the U.S. find themselves not in a traditional courtroom, but in a regular commercial office building where the federal government leases space.
The courtrooms are small — most with no metal detectors fixed outside the doors. Contract guards peek through a hole in the door rather than patrol inside. And Frye says the guards sometimes arrive too late to help.
"I mentioned one judge who had to take disability retirement in 2008 after being hit over the head with a chair while she was in the courtroom," Frye says. "One was physically assaulted in the government facility in the hall, was kicked, repeatedly hit in various parts of the body and he, too, ultimately had to take disability retirement."
Data on the threats and how often they are carried out are hard to come by. Frye and his colleague Mark Brown say they have counted more than 200 threats against judges who hear Social Security disability cases over the past four years.
Immigration judges say they want more information about threats against them. The judges also want secure parking areas and separate entrances and exits. They want the federal government to make sure bailiffs appear in each immigration courtroom and to reconsider a policy that bars guards from going inside Social Security hearings — a measure designed to protect the privacy of applicants.
Marks says her colleagues sometimes share an elevator with people they've just ruled against.
"We render decisions at the end of a hearing, right there, in real time, looking eye to eye with the person who is claiming relief," Marks says. "So if we have to deny their case, they are right there, experiencing all that emotion. And all that potential anger if a case doesn't go their way."
The Federal Protective Service, which handles security contracts for guards in the facilities, had no immediate response to the judges' request.
But Frye says the issue is too important for judges to remain silent.
"No judge should be sitting in a courtroom in circumstances where he or she may be fearful of physical harm," Frye says. "That's wrong."