01.11.11

John Roll Killing in Arizona Puts Focus on Judges’ Security

Jared Lee Loughner’s target may have been Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but his murder of Judge John Roll is drawing attention to the threats faced by federal judges, especially those serving in border states. Shushannah Walshe reports.

Jared Lee Loughner’s target may have been Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but his murder of Judge John Roll is drawing attention to the threats faced by federal judges, especially those serving in border states. Shushannah Walshe reports. Plus, full coverage of the Arizona shooting.

The chief federal judge in Arizona, John Roll, was among the six murdered when Jared Lee Loughner went on a rampage in Tucson on Saturday. Although investigators say Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was Loughner’s target and Roll was merely a bystander, his death does put the spotlight on the security of federal judges and the threats they face.

Roll got 24-hour protection from the U.S. Marshals Service in 2009, after he ruled that a $32 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against a local rancher could go forward. That action angered the right in Arizona, and Roll received death threats.

Roll’s longtime friend and fellow federal judge Irma Gonzales, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, described to The Daily Beast the threats Roll faced.

“I know his life was threatened and the lives of his family by numerous phone calls and also written materials that he received from people,” Gonzales said, adding that Roll had “more fear for his family than for himself.” Roll also pushed for more judges on the bench when border-related cases grew. Roll told Arizona’s Capitol Media Services just last week that the federal courts in Arizona were drowning in a “tsunami” of criminal cases from a large number of agents working on the border.

“I know his life was threatened and the lives of his family by numerous phone calls and also written materials that he received from people,” Gonzales said.

The Judicial Conference of the United States set up a special Committee on Judicial Security in 2005 after the mother and husband of federal Judge Joan Lefkow were murdered in Chicago.

The committee works with the U.S. Marshals Service to ensure the security of federal judges and their courthouses. The chairman of the committee and federal appeals judge for the 7th Circuit, Michael Kanne, told The Daily Beast that Congress funded home-intrusion detection services in 2005 for all federal judges and that the marshals have set up a threat analysis center to gauge the seriousness of each incident.

Kanne said threats against judges have increased, especially in border states such as Arizona, where immigration and the activities of Mexican drug cartels are the subject of heated political debate. “I think the fact 20 years ago we didn’t have the news cycle we have today, 24 hours a day—all of that I think can lead to more threats,” he said. “I also think the Internet and social networks provide an immediate opportunity to act out… It’s just a few strokes on a keyboard.”

Judges overseeing high-profile terrorism cases often have protection, as well, although sometimes, instead of expensive around-the-clock surveillance, they are simply escorted to and from the courthouse while their homes are under video surveillance.

Kanne said that in 2009 Roll kept the full-time security detail for only a month or so, because he found it “very intrusive” and believed the threat had diminished. Roll’s friend Gonzales recalled, “They had to be everywhere with him: the grocery store, to church, doctor’s appointments, his office, and at some point after a time had passed you have to make a decision with the Marshals Service.”

Gonzales also has received threats, she said, and two years ago a pipe bomb exploded at the front door of her courthouse at 1 a.m. No one was injured, but “it was extremely disturbing,” she said. “If it had happened during the day, definitely somebody would have been hurt or killed. But this is life of the judge.”

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.