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Judges Ask For More Security Amid Threats

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Judges Ask For More Security Amid Threats


Judges Ask For More Security Amid Threats

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Judges who oversee some of the most emotional cases to reach a courtroom are worried about their safety. There have been threats and some attacks against immigration and Social Security judges, and they are asking the federal government for more protection.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Earlier this year, a man angry over cuts to his Social Security benefits opened fire in the lobby of a Las Vegas courthouse. A security guard there died in a hail of gunfire.

Judge Randall Frye fears more violence could be on the way.

Judge RANDALL FRYE (President, Association of Administrative Law Judges): Over the past four years, there have been approximately 200 similar kinds of threats. And unfortunately, some of those threats have been acted on.

JOHNSON: Judge Frye leads a group of administrative law judges who spoke in Washington today.

Some of the worst horror stories, they say, come from the immigration courts, where people desperate to stay in the country sometimes strike out at judges.

Here's Judge Dana Leigh Marks. She hears immigration cases in San Francisco.

Judge DANA LEIGH MARKS (Federal Immigration Judge, Department of Justice): One colleague reports that the brake lines to her car were cut while in the parking lot at work. Another judge was grabbed by the robe by an irate respondent. Another judge experienced someone attempting suicide, right there in the courtroom.

JOHNSON: Many people who want a court to give them Social Security 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, with no metal detectors. Contract guards, paid by the hour, peek through a hole in the door rather than patrol inside. And Judge Frye says the guards sometimes arrive too late to help.

Judge FRYE: 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. 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.

OHNSON: Data on the threats, and how often they're carried out, is hard to come by. Judges say they want more information about that, and 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. That's to protect the privacy of applicants.

Judge Marks says her colleagues sometimes share an elevator with people they've just ruled against.

Judge MARKS: 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. So if we have to deny their case, they are right there, experiencing all that emotion, and all that potential anger, if the case doesn't go their way.

JOHNSON: The Federal Protective Service, which handles security contracts for guards in the facilities, had no immediate response to the judges' request.

But Judge Frye says the issue is too important for judges to remain silent.

Judge FRYE: No judge should be sitting in a courtroom, in circumstances where he or she may be fearful of physical harm. That's wrong.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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