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Attack In New Jersey Reminds Judges That Their Jobs Are Dangerous


There are new concerns about security for judges after a man describing himself as an anti-feminist activist attacked the home of a federal judge in New Jersey. The FBI says Roy Den Hollander shot and killed the 20-year-old son of Judge Esther Salas and seriously wounded her husband. Hollander was later found dead. NPR's Brian Mann has been looking into this and joins us. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREEN: So you've been talking to judges who have also faced threats over the years. What are they saying about this kind of violence?

MANN: Yeah, they say they're really worried, you know, for their own safety and their family's security. But another thing that kind of surprised me is that they say this is a reality of their profession. I spoke with Judge Charles Weller. He presides over a family court in Reno, Nev. And he was seriously wounded in an attack in 2006.

CHARLES WELLER: I was a judge in a divorce case. The husband in the case murdered his wife, and then he took up a position at a parking garage across from my courthouse and shot me through a window with a rifle. I think all judges need to recognize that it's a risk that's inherent with the job.

MANN: And so it turns out judges are actually trained to watch out for these threats. They go through classes to learn how to watch for people in their courtrooms who might pose a risk. But they say it's hard. You know, one federal judge I spoke to who has faced threats himself, to himself and his wife, told me he worries most about attacks like the one on Sunday in New Jersey, from what he described as a disgruntled person who you don't see coming.

GREEN: God. I just didn't realize judges have to think about this so much.

MANN: Yeah.

GREEN: I mean, are these kinds of attacks that common?

MANN: The attacks are rare, but the threats are increasing. The U.S. Marshals Service guards federal judges, and they issued a report that says threats increased fourfold just since 2015 - roughly 4,500 red flags last year alone. I spoke with John Muffler, who's a retired U.S. marshal, and he's worked on judicial security details for years.

JOHN MUFFLER: And, simply, its social media. One person threatens a judge because of a decision, either in their case or a case that was high profile, and then it just allows others to anonymously post additional inappropriate comment or threats.

MANN: Yeah, and he says the Internet does one other thing that's troubling - it allows people to dox judges. That means they can post judges' personal information, phone numbers, home addresses and family information online.

GREEN: Well, I mean, so threats already increasing, and then we have what happened in this attack in New Jersey. So is the conversation ramping up at all? Are people offering new ways to keep judges safe?

MANN: So there is a big conversation among judges about this, and security has been increased over the years. All federal judges are now offered electronic home security systems. But these are really public people, and no one I spoke to thought there could be 100% safety here. One other thing, remember - a lot of judges actually run for election, which means they have to be out there in the world campaigning.

John Muffler, that former U.S. Marshal, said he thinks there has also been a real effort to get better intelligence on this, trying to comb through all of that Internet noise to identify the real dangers. He told me U.S. marshals are likely to do an assessment now of this shooting in New Jersey to find out whether they missed anything, any clues about the real danger that this man posed.

GREEN: All right. NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thank you so much.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.