No one in the judicial system is safe so long as the system ignores threats, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow said before Congress less than four months after an attempt on her life.
The federal judge whose family was murdered asked the Senate Wednesday to condemn "gratuitous attacks on the judiciary" by commentators such as evangelist Pat Robertson and members of Congress such as Tom DeLay, saying their words could spark more violence.
"A litigant who was angry with me shot him in the head, and my aged mother, for no reason other than that they were in his way on the road to murder me," Lefkow told the committee in a chill monotone.
Lefkow is just one of many judges who feel they're been put in the bullseye lately by a combination of raw political rhetoric and sloppy security.
She not only took a shot at U.S. Marshalls for being too busy chasing headlines to protect judges from harm's way, but also criticized comments by tele-evangelist Pat Robertson and some in Congress for fanning anger at judges because of recent rulings on the Terri Schiavo case and others,
She was particularly irked at Robertson for comparing judges to terrorists, on the ABC News Program, This Week.
"Fostering disrespect for judges can only encourage those that are on the edge, or on the fringe, to exact revenge on a judge who displeases them," Lefkow told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Not only was her family murdered, but Lefkow said she faces public harassment, reports CBS Affiliate WBBM's Mike Parker.
"As recently as last Friday, which was May 13, I was spotted and harassed in a restaurant in downtown Chicago," Lefkow said. "Had that harasser come back rather than left a nasty sign and had a gun, then obviously I wouldn't be here today."
In her prepared remarks for today's hearing, she also urged Congress to "publicly and persistently repudiate" harsh remarks about the judiciary that occurred after the Terri Schiavo case. For example, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said of the Schiavo case, "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
Her husband and mother were slain in the couple's Chicago home in February. Bart Ross, a 57-year-old unemployed electrician from Chicago, committed suicide in suburban Milwaukee in March after leaving a note confessing to the murders. He had been angered when Lefkow dismissed a malpractice suit he had filed, authorities said.
The judge also was the target of a murder plot by white supremacist Matthew Hale. A federal jury convicted Hale in April 2004 of soliciting her murder, and he was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison. She was never attacked.
After the death of Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents unsuccessfully sought to have her feeding tube reinserted despite her husband's wishes, some Republican members of Congress lashed out at judges involved in the case.
At the time, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said, "The actions on the part of the Florida court and the U.S. Supreme Court are unconscionable."
"This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
Referring to a different decision, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he wondered whether frustration against perceived political decisions by judges "builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence, certainly without any justification."
Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and head of the Christian Broadcasting Network, appeared on ABC's "This Week" earlier this month and criticized the federal courts. "Over 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings," he said.
Lefkow said that kind of "harsh rhetoric is truly dangerous."
"I have never encountered a judge in the federal judiciary who can remotely be described as posing a threat, as Mr. Robertson said, 'probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings,"' she said.
Lefkow called on Congress to increase funding for the U.S. Marshals Service, which protects judges. She also wants legislation to ban putting personal information about judges and other government officials on the Internet without their permission.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., focused on the importance of judges being willing to request protection when needed. He asked Lefkow why she didn't request protection after the white supremacist group threatened her life several years ago.
Lefkow said she lacked the expertise to properly assess the threat and that, to her knowledge, no system was in place to properly assess and protect her safety.
Congress should make sure that money that has been allocated for home security systems for federal judges gets to them as fast as possible, she said.
Congress has approved $12 million to install home security systems for the 2,200 active and semiretired judges and magistrates in the federal court system.