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Opinion: Missouri judges need protection

  

Each of us has a special memory of time shared with a loved one, a parent, a child. For a woman named Esther, that memory is from the summer of 2020, when she and her husband had just celebrated their son’s 20th birthday with a party in their home. Esther was in the basement with her son cleaning up after the party when he said to her: “Mom, let’s keep talking. I love talking to you, Mom.” Just then, the doorbell rang and her son ran up the stairs. When he answered the door he was shot in the chest and killed by a man posing as a delivery driver. Esther’s husband was also shot three times and seriously injured.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot

What possibly could have motivated this man? Esther is a federal judge in New Jersey. It was determined that the perpetrator was a disgruntled attorney. Investigators later found in the perpetrator’s car a list of other targets, including three female judges. This tragedy was the impetus for a New Jersey law making it a crime to make public personal addresses and other identifying information about judges or their families.

Sadly, this was only the most recent such tragedy. In 2005, Judge Joan Lefkow returned to her home in Chicago and found her husband and her 89-year-old mother had been shot and killed. An investigation found the murderer was a disgruntled litigant whose medical malpractice case had been dismissed by Judge Lefkow.

A judge in Florida, sitting in his living room, narrowly escaped serious injury in 2013 when a gunshot missed his head by less than two inches. The shooter, who was convicted of the attempted assassination, purchased the judge’s personal information over the internet for $1.95.

Thankfully, we have not seen an attack of this magnitude in Missouri. There are, however, numerous threats and incidents of harassment that occur and are never publicized. Missouri judges and their families have been targeted with threats and have had their personal information published on the internet. A Missouri judge received threatening texts and learned information like their home address and personal and financial information of their family members were posted on the internet. The harassment began because someone was unhappy with the judge’s ruling in a case.

Once this personal information is made available on the internet, it can be widely and quickly distributed via social media, which implicates concerns regarding the physical security of judges and their families. In this instance, police were concerned enough about the threats to post extra security at the school where the judge’s children attended.

These are only a few of the more recent examples of threats and violence against judges. They are grim reminders that those undertaking a life of public service may risk not only their lives but also those of their loved ones. Nationally, the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general found the number of threats targeting judges and other protected personnel in the 2020 fiscal year had increased 81 percent compared to 2016.

The U.S. Marshals office, which is responsible for the protection of the federal judicial process, recently said “[e]nsuring that the judicial process operates independently and free from harm or intimidation is paramount to the rule of law and the reduction of violent crime.”

The cases in our state courts may involve divorce, child custody, business, financial disputes, and any number of other issues that are highly stressful and emotionally and financially challenging. Missouri judges are tasked with making tough calls in close cases. As a result, it is not uncommon for one or both sides in a case to be unhappy. We do not want safety fears ever to interfere with a judge’s ability to carry out their constitutional obligations.

We should not have to wait for tragedies like those that took the lives of Judge Salas’ and Judge Lefkow’s families before we take steps to ensure Missouri’s judicial officers are able to carry out their constitutional obligations without fear for the safety or that of their families.

That is why I filed HB 2037 which creates the “Judicial Privacy Act.” This bill provides a mechanism for judicial officers to work with government agencies and others to protect personal information from being improperly publicly posted or displayed. If an entity covered by this language has been notified and fails to remove the judicial officer’s personal information from the internet, this bill gives the judicial officer the ability to seek an order compelling the entity to remove the information from the internet.

Finally, if these measures are not successful, this bill creates the offense of knowingly publicly posting on the internet the personal information of a judicial officer or of the officer’s immediate family. This offense applies if the information is posted for purposes of tampering with a judicial officer or if the person knows or should know that publicly posting the information would pose an imminent and serious threat to the health and safety of the judicial officer or of the officer’s family, and the violation is the proximate cause of bodily injury or death of the officer or a member of the officer’s immediate family. This offense is a class D felony .