When a judge who helped derail President Donald Trump’s travel ban was hit with online threats, the abuse raised safety concerns among jurists across the country, and experts are worried that the president’s own attacks on the judiciary could make judges a more inviting target.
US district judge James Robart imposed the temporary restraining order that halted enforcement of Trump’s ban last week. The president soon sent a tweet saying the opinion of “this so-called judge” was “ridiculous and will be overturned”.
Robart quickly became a target on social media. Someone on Twitter called him a “Dead man walking” and another on Facebook suggested he be imprisoned at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, “where other enemies of the US are held”.
“I know there’s a fear among the judiciary with what’s being said,” said John Muffler, a former US marshal who teaches security at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. He cited professional contacts and email exchanges with judges.
Critical comments from the president have consequences, he added, because “people on the edge can easily be pushed over the edge once the rhetoric gets going”.
Trump blasted the federal court system again on Wednesday after the ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether Robart’s restraining order should stand. During a speech to law enforcement officials, the president said the “courts seem to be so political” and called the hearing “disgraceful”.
The next day, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump had “no regrets” about his criticism of judges.
Threats against judges are nothing new. They often come in the form of emails, phone calls, letters and social media posts, according to court records and the US Marshal Service, which is responsible for protecting the federal judiciary.
Judges are well guarded at their courthouse offices, but most do not receive protection at home or in the community. The Marshal Service offers extra protection if judges are threatened or handling especially sensitive or high-profile cases.
Over the past few years, marshals have responded to thousands of threats against court officials.
A Minnesota man used Twitter to threaten a federal judge overseeing a case against ISIS supporters. In Seattle, a defendant left phone messages and sent letters to two judges, saying he would kill, stab, poison and bomb them because of their rulings. A white supremacist in Virginia sent electronic messages threatening to kidnap, torture, rape and kill a judge and his family.
Chad Schmucker, president of the Judicial College, said “assaults on judges don’t occur every day, but threats do”.
He said they are usually made by “disturbed people or people who are very angry”.