February 2008: Court Security Protections Become Law … At Last

Washington Watch | February 2008
By Bruce Moyer

In the closing days of its 2007 session, Congress finally passed the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 (H.R. 660), and the President signed the measure (Public Law 110-177, 121 Stat. 2534) on Jan. 9. It took Congress and the President nearly three years to enact this legislation, even though its major terms are largely similar to bills first introduced in 2005 in the wake of the brutal murders of members of the family of federal district judge, Joan Humphrey Lefkow, in Chicago and the shooting 11 days later of a judge and others in an Atlanta courtroom.

In the immediate aftermath of the Chicago and Atlanta murders, federal and state officials acknowledged that "critical deficiencies" in courthouse security existed, and the U.S. Marshals Service statistics reflected a dramatic rise in the number of reported threats against federal judges and prosecutors since the Marshals Service began collecting figures in 1979. But, time and again, congressional action on court security was delayed as a result of partisan wrangling, including a lengthy dispute about whether or not minimum mandatory sentences should be imposed against those who endanger judicial officials.

Over the course of nearly the past three years, the Federal Bar Association vigorously urged Congress and federal officials to act on the issue—both by enacting tougher court security protections in law and by providing greater resources to beef up security in federal courts. Two days after the Lefkow murders, FBA President Tom Schuck sent letters to President Bush, the attorney general, congressional lawmakers, and others, asking them "immediately to assess and assure that funding for security requirements is adequate and that all prudent arrangements for the protection of judicial personnel, their families and our public courthouses have been made." Follow-up calls for action were repeatedly expressed by FBA Presidents Robyn Spalter and Bill LaForge, whose advocacy efforts in the name of the FBA were assisted by the Government Relations Committee.

Even before passing the new law, Congress provided $12 million in funding for security detection systems in the homes of federal judges, and the Marshals Service, with a new director, stepped up its protection of the federal judiciary. However, other gaps still remain in the protection of administrative law judges in federal agencies.

In summary, the new legislation does the following:

  • Prohibits the filing (or attempts or conspiracies to file) of false liens or encumbrances against the real or personal property of any federal officer or employee and imposes a fine and/or prison term of up to 10 years for infractions. This is intended to curtail the pernicious and burdensome practice of those harassing federal judges and federal prosecutors, especially in the country's Western states. 
  • Prohibits the public disclosure of restricted personal information about a federal officer or employee, witness, or juror (or immediate family members) with the intent to threaten or cause harm to such individuals and imposes a fine and/or prison term of up to five years for violations.
  • Requires the attorney general to study and report to Congress on whether general public access to state and local records imperils the safety of the federal judiciary.
  • Allows federal judges to use their courthouses as their home of record for purposes of obtaining drivers' licenses and other forms of identification. 
  • Prohibits the possession of dangerous weapons in federal court facilities. 
  • Provides for continued Judicial Conference authority (until 2011) to redact sensitive information from federal judges' financial disclosure reports. (The judiciary had sought permanent authority for this provision.) 
  • Directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review its sentencing guidelines related to threats against a federal official that are made over the Internet. 
  • Modifies venue requirements for prosecutions for retaliation against a witness to include the district in which the official proceeding or criminal conduct occurred. 
  • Increases maximum prison terms for the tampering with, or retaliating against, a witness, victim, or informant; voluntary and involuntary manslaughter; and assault against a federal judge, law enforcement officer, or immediate family members of such officials. 
  • Requires the attorney general to report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on a range of measures relating to the security of assistant U.S. attorneys and other federal attorneys arising from the prosecution of terrorists and other violent criminals.

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA.
© 2008 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.

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