CHICAGO – In an era when Americans are security conscious as never before, the men and women who preside over the nation's courts and decide the fate of criminals and terrorists go about their daily lives largely unprotected.
That lack of routine security has been underscored by the murders of the husband and 89-year-old mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow (search) in the basement of their home on an affluent street on Chicago's North Side (search).
Some fellow judges say it shows the need for better security outside the courthouse, and security experts said it highlights the importance of careful threat assessment. Lefkow had received special protection after a threat, but it was withdrawn two years ago.
"Clearly, it was an error to remove security so quickly, so the assessment wasn't adequate," says Robert McCrie, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice (search) and authority on security administration.
Federal marshals dispute any notion that they erred in assessing the risk to Lefkow.
"Mr. McCrie is entitled to his opinion but we don't know how he can formulate an opinion on a process that he has never been privy to," said Shannon Metzger, a spokeswoman for the marshal's office in Chicago. She said the marshals stand behind the assessment they made in the Lefkow case after consulting the FBI, prosecutors and the judge herself.
Inside courthouses, judges are protected by marshals, bailiffs, court security, police and FBI agents. But outside, they have no special protection unless a threat is recognized. They drive themselves home from work, eat out at restaurants, visit shopping centers and walk in their neighborhoods like anyone else.
When a threat is recognized, guards can be assigned to them and their children, police can be posted outside their homes, and burglar alarms can be installed as well.
Statistically, violence against federal judges is unusual. Only three have ever been murdered, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
However, the increase in terrorism, both domestic and foreign, is making judges feel more vulnerable now, and they are increasingly concerned about their families as well.
"I think there is an increased need and awareness because there are people who are interested in attacking the very fabric of our democracy," says U.S. District Judge Marvin E. Aspen, a colleague of Lefkow's.
"Judges get all kinds of threats," he says. "Most don't amount to anything, but occasionally there is a threat that is a very viable one. Those have to be identified."
Lefkow had special protection for about two weeks in 2003 around the time of the arrest of white supremacist Matthew Hale, who was later convicted of soliciting an undercover FBI informant to murder the judge. Lefkow had received many threats after she ordered Hale to stop using the name World Church of the Creator for his extremist organization because of a trademark lawsuit.
Since giving up the special protection, Lefkow's home had no security system Monday, when she returned from work and found her husband Michael, an attorney, and mother, Donna Humphrey, shot to death in the basement.
Lefkow and her daughters are now being guarded by federal marshals.
Hale, 33, who faces sentencing next month, has denied any involvement in the killings. He argued in a motion made public Monday that he shouldn't be sentenced to more than eight years and contended authorities owe him and the judge apologies for causing Lefkow "to think that her life was in danger needlessly and wrongly."
In recent years, Capitol Hill has recognized the dangers that federal judges can face. Judges now can redact any information in financial disclosure statements in the public record, including their home addresses. And Congress has stiffened the penalties for assaults against federal judges or attempts to intimidate them.
"It's unfortunate that it takes acts or threats of violence to put a human face on the federal judiciary," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the Senate in urging approval of the tougher penalties two months after the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The marshal's office in Chicago says that in one recent year it managed and monitored 20 separate security details for judges and federal prosecutors who had been threatened.
U.S. District Judge Wayne R. Andersen was with Lefkow in the hours following her discovery of the killings.
"This horrible tragedy has got to serve as the basis for a substantial increase in security for judges and their families," Andersen said.