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U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was among the six people killed Saturday when he dropped by a community event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
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updated 1/11/2011 12:13:34 PM ET 2011-01-11T17:13:34

As Americans grapple with the Tucson shootings and congressional lawmakers reexamine changes in their personal security measures, members of the judiciary branch are also mourning the loss of one of their own — a dreaded occurrence for a community that has faced mounting threats of violence in recent years.

U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was among the six people killed Saturday when he dropped by a community event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shortly before 22-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire.

While it appears that Roll was not a specific target, his death — especially in light of the scores of threats he received earlier in his career — underscored the safety risks members of the judiciary branch at all levels have faced for decades.

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And the measures that thousands of judicial officials take every day, many without the aid of extensive funding from the government, show the challenges faced by members of Congress as they attempt to control their own unpredictable environments.

“We get a lot of threats,” says Judge Mary Celeste, presiding judge of the Denver County Court and the president of the American Judges Association, who added that she has notified local law enforcement to request additional patrols in her neighborhood after receiving abusive messages.

“I have a security system in my home. I have a panic button in my home. I have a weapon in my home,” Celeste said.

Video: Remembering Judge John Roll (on this page)

Security experts recommend that judicial officials and their staffs take measures that range from varying their route from work to home, to declining to put identifying information on their clothing or parking places, to carrying weapons inside and outside of the courtroom.

Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts who specializes in court security, notes that judges face a unique threat because they interact so closely with members of the public in their proceedings.

“When a congressperson votes, that — three, four, five steps down the road — may have the effect of personally injuring you,” Raftery said. “But when a judge takes away your child or a judge rules against you for thousands of dollars, or doesn’t agree with you on a particular lawsuit, that’s a direct personal thing occurring to you as a person … As a result, judges are in a particularly vulnerable position.”

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Many judges began taking additional precautions after a Chicago district judge’s husband and mother were found murdered in her home in 2005. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist assembled a special panel of officials at the time to assess how security for members of the judiciary could be improved.

“We certainly are very mindful of the dangers of those that are in public life,” said Judge Michael Kanne of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who now chairs that panel.

But, Kanne added, the financial and personal prices of additional security measures present a puzzle. Congress recently began making funds available for home security devices to all federal judges, for example, but a program for firearms training for all judges has been shelved.

“We have to weigh the costs versus the risks. Constantly,” he said.

In an environment where acts of violence are far less predictable than the system of justice that tries to contain them, funding can only go so far.

“All the money in the world can’t prevent some of these [incidents],” said Marcus Reinkensmeyer, administrator for the Superior Court of Maricopa County. “There’s been talk about more staffing in the Congress and more security equipment. But with that can come a false sense of security.”

Video: Violence, threats taunt politicians (on this page)

While officials in state courts usually depend upon law enforcement as well as state and local funding to augment their security, the defense of federal judges falls under the purview of the U.S Marshals. The Marshals Service — part of the Department of Justice — is responsible for the protection of approximately 10,000 members of the federal judiciary and federal prosecutors.

That burden has become weightier as threats against federal judicial officials have ballooned. According to a Justice Department report released last year, almost 6,000 threats were leveled against federal judicial officials between 2002 and 2008. Last year, the Marshals Service investigated and analyzed approximately 1,395 threats and inappropriate communications — nearly three times as many threats recorded in 2003.

In the immediate aftermath of Roll’s death, U.S. Marshals treated the incident as a threat to federal judges and “provided enhanced protective measures and security briefings” to its protectees, said Michael Prout, Assistant Director for Judicial Security for the Marshals Service. Those measures were modified after it became apparent that Roll was not Loughner’s intended target.

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Roll, who had received a special Marshal Service detail after receiving hundreds of threats in 2009 in the wake of his involvement in a controversial civil rights case, was no longer under the protection of marshals at the time of his death, Prout said.

Judges and experts both pointed to the prevalence of information about individual judges on the internet as a primary reason for the rise in threats. Some emerging online forums, where citizens can compare their experiences with specific judges by name, can serve as an inferno for like-minded complainants to air sentiments of anger and suggestions of violence.

Court structures alone can be target enough, says Reinkensmeyer of Maricopa County. His district has seen a jump in bomb threats against the court building itself in recent years, as well as a rise in threats against individual officials.

“Sometimes the court building just represents a government institution,” a place that becomes the target of those who generally distrust public officials, he said.

Maricopa County neighbors Pima County where the Tucson shootings took place and Roll lost his life.

Roll’s death, even as an innocent bystander at a political event unrelated to his work, has been difficult for a community weary of looking over its shoulder, officials said.

“In this time when people are angry at public servants and are facing tough economic times, judges become a visible symbol for their anger,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, the head of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It’s a little bit frightening, especially to our families, who are wondering if we’re risking our lives just to go to work.”

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Video: Violence, threats taunt politicians

  1. Closed captioning of: Violence, threats taunt politicians

    >>> now, the suspect in this weekend's massacre finds himself in a federal courtroom as a nation finds itself searching for answers.

    >> all of us are still grieving and in shock from the tragedy that took place. families are still absorbing the enormity of their losses.

    >> the accused shooter, jared lee loughner, just 22 years old, described as a social outcast . people who know him describe him as unstable. a former classmate saying he quote, frightened her. six were killed, including a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11. her life, truly bookended by tragedy. congresswoman giffords is one of the 14 victims who survived and right now, doctors remain very optimistic about her recovery. meantime, the shock waves are being felt clear across the country and straight through to the halls of congress. her colleagues on both sides today expressing support for her and concern for the safety of everyone who serves their country. a timely concern with this tragedy this past weekend and word just moments ago of an arrest following a threat against colorado senator, michael bennet. joining us today from washington, trent franks from arizona. also joining us, elliot angle, from the state of new york . he was holding an event in the bronx when he learned about the shooting. thank you for joining us. how have you feelings and thoughts about this changed as you've had a chance to digest?

    >> first of all, gabby giffords is one of my closest friends in congress. she's just about the nicest, sweetest, kindest person you could ever meet. just the shock of someone you know and so kind would be hurt like that. we don't always know as members of congress that if someone wants to do harm to you, they probably can. we're in our districts all the time. meeting with people. we're shaking hands with random people on the street, going into meetings and i think everyone feels that we can't be impeded to do that. otherwise, we wouldn't be able to do our job. at the time, gabby was shot, i was in my district on a street corner with a congressional proclamation for an establishment celebrating its 50th year and people were walking up randomly. the same type of thing. i had done many town hall meetings like gabby does. we do this all the time.

    >> congressman franks, how do you reconcile the imperative to stay connected in the ways that are described her with the obvious threat that exists in an open society ?

    >> first of all, i just want to find complete agreement in all of the words that eliot engel just spoke, special beloved friends as well as gabby giffords . i think that sometimes people believe that because there are political gaps in our relationships, there can't be close personal relationships. i deject that. never a cross word has ever passed between myself and mr. engel or gabby giffords . he is exactly right. in a free society . in a free republic like we live in, which is a gift, there are great risks that go with that. the people, being the bosses of the system, have the right to interact with their leaders and i have to say to you, that i think part of that risk is one that we have to absorb because i think it would be wrong to allow a monster like mr. loughner to be the sentinel of our debate and somehow, because of the evil in him we would change our way of life . instead, we need the change the way of life who those who would do such an act.

    >> act russo, how do you reconcile the event between the politicians and the opportunity and obvious security liableties created in an open communication environment?

    >> it's a very difficult situation. both representatives said their job is being out there with their constituents in the public. for a situation like this from a security perspective, unless you have several layers of security to include weapons detections screenings, explosive detection , which are the levels you see at the highest, then it's going to be difficult to prevent this. if you have somebody with bad intentions, access to weapons, a history of mental illness and is willing to die, then it's very difficult to prevent a situation like this from happening.

    >> congressman engel, how would you as a leader in this country, suggest, and same for you, congressman franks. that we channel the energy and the grief of a tragedy like this into and can harness it in a way that allows us to move into not only a healing place, but to a productive place, a place that leads us towards a resolution as opposed to a continued versions of fragmentation and destruction?

    >> well, the asassin was not only going after the congresswoman, but the heart of democracy. i think to prove him wrong, we need to keep on doing what we're doing. however, that's short-term. i think long-term, there needs to be an assessment of what we might be able to implement to make it safer for members of congress and the senate to get by and do our duties and i'm sure we had -- i've been in congress 22 years and there's never been a bipartisan conference call with every member of congress as there was yesterday. and we had both leaders from both parties. we had the attending physician's office. we had the secret service and fbi participate. sergeant at arms. we are going to, i think, have to reassess a number of things and try to figure out ways there might be better protection, understanding there's no way you can be totally protected, but i think there will be things. many years ago after 9/11, it was suggested we remove the license plates in our cars that identified us as members of congress . i did it. i think 90, 95% of members do it. american, all of us, just years ago, we ran on to an airplane, didn't have to check i.d. or be poked or have anything x-rayed. tod today, we do it and accept it. there will be have been some adjustments made for members of congress .

    >> the thing that we learned from this tragedy more than anything else is what a priceless, delicate gift that life is in the first place. and i hope that somehow, that would increase our awareness that each person beside us is a child of god and if we did that, if we recognized how delicate this life is and how each one of us is tied to the other, i believe not only would the discussion change, but the objects of our debate would change and what really happened here was that this person who did this was bereft of those ideals. he didn't have a moral impulse to try to protect innocent human life and was willing to take it for some twisted goal he might have. whether revenge or some statement. this is not just a political problem. this is a human problem. we need to realize that each person next to us has the image of god stamped on their souls and is a miracle that beggars human description. if we start treating each other with that kind of respect and affecti affection, i truly believe the world might have a chance.

    >> it goes to the basic principles that there is no such thing as us and them. that there's only us. certainly after world war ii , has deteriorated somewhat. it goes to some of the conversation i was having with staff earlier today, which is events like this, doesn't have to be a horrific tragedy like this, but events like this create a sense of unity. what's not clear, congressman franks, is whether and how it sustained itself.

    >> well, i would agree with that. i think eliot is a good example of what happens when you have a person that cares about other people. mr. loughner has reminded us of the tragedy that can follow when that is not present in a person, so a lot of our societial efforts should be to promote and catalyze this respect for innocent human life and for one another. a gentleman stood on a hill a long time ago, about 2,000 years ago and said it better than i did, but it's still very appropriate for today. in the final analysis , life a s a miracle and each person, if we treat each other as such, it might be a lot easier to navigate.

    >> lots to meditate on for all of us. thank you. and agent russo, thank you for giving us a slice of your afternoon as well.

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