Whenever a judge renders a decision on a large, controversial issue, we hear cries of “judicial activism” from the people who disagree with the result. We saw it with the decision enjoining enforcement of Arizona’s immigration law, the decision finding Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and many others.
There have even been documented cases of death threats against judges and court staff involved in some of these cases, and when this happens, it gets quite a bit of attention. The media narrative is always the same: right-wing pundits decry the death threats, but say that they’re at least a little understandable, given the “judicial tyranny” that’s unfolding. Pundits in the left say that the threats are just another example of how depraved and fanatical the right has become. Lather, rinse, repeat, and watch Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann get their contracts renewed with their respective networks.
Apparently, however, threats of violence against judges happen far more often than we hear about them, because the vast majority of these threats don’t have anything to do with high-profile cases. If a recent post in the Wall Street Journal Law Blog is to be believed, threats against Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) by disgruntled parties have become increasingly common.
ALJs typically handle disputes between individuals and government agencies. The cases they handle rarely garner a lot of media attention, and they aren’t very “sexy” (they don’t involve weighty constitutional or policy questions), but for the people involved, they can be life-or-death.
For example, in immigration cases, if the end result is an immigrant getting deported, that person’s life might be ruined. During many of these cases, emotions run extremely high.
According to Courthouse News Service, ALJs who handle Social Security hearings are also the targets of threats on a fairly regular basis. Again, if a judge finds that a person isn’t legally “disabled,” they might be unable to collect social security benefits, which, much like deportation, could have ruinous consequences.
None of this, of course, excuses violence or threats of violence. We are a nation of laws, after all, and if our laws are generally fair, it’s fair to expect people to abide by them, even if they disagree with them.
I don’t know if it’s because the media has focused on the “nation divided” narrative, but reports of death threats against politicians and judges have become much more common. Maybe it’s just that they’re getting more press, and aren’t actually becoming more common.
However, given the current political climate, and the seemingly-unprecedented rancor that political discussions seem to elicit, I wouldn’t have any trouble believing that threats have increased. It’s important to note that the vast majority of these threats aren’t particularly dangerous. They’re just people blowing off steam, and don’t intend to carry them out.
However, there have been far too many cases of actual violence against judges. There have been cases of judges being murdered by people unhappy with their rulings, particularly in the family law context.
Another problem is that, while most federal courts have a good deal of security, administrative courts, and ALJs don’t appear to get nearly as much federal protection. In fact, many of the cases take place in small rooms, with less than 300 square feet of space. In the words of one ALJ, it’s almost akin to hearing a death penalty case in traffic court, given the stakes involved, and the lax treatment given to the facilities and security for these courts.
It’s not surprising, then, that ALJs are sometimes physically attacked in their own courtrooms. The stories I linked to discuss one incident of a judge being struck with a chair.
So, what is the solution to this problem? First, and most obviously, we should increase security for ALJs, and at administrative courts. These are sometimes called the “hidden judiciary” because they handle a huge number of very important cases, but their activities go almost entirely unnoticed by those not directly involved with them. This seems to be reflected in their funding, as well.
Perhaps more importantly, we should do everything we can to ensure that laypersons have at least some basic knowledge of the law before going into court. The more a person knows about the law, the more likely they are to have realistic expectations about the outcome of their case. This, of course, won’t take away the sting of disappointment for the losing party, but it might at least mitigate it, and help the losing party deal with their loss in a more constructive way. It should go without saying that threatening or assaulting a judge, regardless of how good it might make you feel for a brief moment, it will not improve your situation.
In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it will make your legal situation quite a bit worse. Just a guess.