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Will Jan. 6 come for our courts next?

As Congress debates fences and policing to protect itself from another Jan. 6 attack, it’s time to focus on the next potential victim of semi-organized violence: America’s courts. Some are already under attack. Our federal and state judiciaries are not immune from the kind of freewheeling assaults that took the Capitol police and election boards by surprise after the election. 

The next federal budget needs to step up protections for our courts — and the millions of Americans who would be harmed by physical and electronic attacks on the third branch of government.

The obvious danger is physical security. Courthouse metal detectors and security staff can deter violence by criminal defendants and aggrieved litigants, but they’re designed for solo incidents. They won’t stop what the FBI unearthed this January, when calls went out for the “storming” of courthouses if President Trump were removed from office. Many courts across the country closed because of their vulnerability.

Another menace is to judges themselves, who risk making enemies every time they decide a case. Last year’s murder of a federal judge’s son – at her family’s house in New Jersey – spotlighted the thousands of threats that jurists face each year. The killing led to a state anti-doxing law banning the publication of home addresses and unlisted phone numbers of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. (The judge recently revealed on “60 Minutes” that her family’s attacker had another target —Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)

The brutal world of 21st century politics can accelerate these threats. Ask federal judge James Robart, a George W. Bush appointee who ruled against the Trump administration’s first travel ban in 2017. When the president lashed out by tweet – “If something happens, blame him and court system” – Robart received 42,000 messages, including more than 100 death threats like “DEAD MAN WALKING” and “who in your family is expendable?”

The third danger is electronic. The internet age empowers small cadres to wreak large-scale damage, which could go far beyond a single judge or courthouse. The judiciary’s dependence on information technology makes it an attractive target for cyber-disruptions that could paralyze the very machinery of justice, harm millions of people and damage important sectors of the economy that depend on a functioning court system.  

Hacktivists who slip through the electronic courthouse door could steal information to intimidate witnesses and jurors, manipulate or destroy digital evidence and alter or even fabricate charges, verdicts and sentences. They could pry open court databases full of sensitive personal and financial information that rivals those of credit bureaus like Equifax, which suffered a massive breach in 2017. Ransomware pirates are already targeting the judiciary: It took months for appellate courts in Texas to recover from a 2020 attack that shut down websites and disabled servers. 

On Jan. 6, even as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol with pipes and flagpoles, the federal judiciary disclosed that hackers had broken into its systems. Untold details were exposed about wiretaps and warrants, witnesses and whistleblowers, patents and trade secrets, and perhaps even espionage targets. Many linked the breach to Russian operatives, but wildcat groups like Anonymous and GnosticPlayers have shown that outside hackers can do similar damage. 

Getting ahead of these dangers won’t be cheap. The federal courts spent $600 million on court security last year, and the U.S. Marshals, who protect federal judges, have asked for $250 million more to hire 1,000 more officers. Other legislation would upgrade home security systems for judges. 

Congress must confront these threats seriously in its next budget, because nihilist black swan attacks on our courts can no longer be filed away as science fiction. Sept. 11 and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing seemed inconceivable before they happened. Afterwards we agonized over how catastrophe could have been prevented. It’s time to wake up to the warnings of January 2021 and prepare. 

Bert Brandenburg was the Justice Department’s chief spokesman and director of public affairs under Attorney General Janet Reno. For more than a decade, he ran Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping courts fair and impartial.

Tags Domestic terrorism in the United States Donald Trump Donald Trump Doxing equifax Internet vigilantism James Robart Sonia Sotomayor United States federal judge US Supreme Court

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