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Proposal to Shield Judges’ Personal Data Online Gets Reboot (1)

July 14, 2021, 8:39 PMUpdated: July 14, 2021, 9:24 PM

Bipartisan legislation to shield judges’ personally identifiable information online was reintroduced in Congress amid heightened focus on security following a deadly shooting at a judge’s home and with threats increasing.

Under the bill introduced Wednesday, data brokers wouldn’t be able to knowingly sell, trade, license purchase, or provide judges’ personally identifiable information. It would also prohibit agencies from posting judges’ personal data and authorize a grant program to help state and local governments prevent that information from getting online or removing it.

“No federal judge should ever have to live fearing that their commitment to serving the public could make their family a target,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a cosponsor.

The bill was introduced in both chambers last Congress after the July 2020 fatal shooting of a federal judge’s son in New Jersey by a lawyer with a grudge against the jurist, Esther Salas. The measure didn’t advance.

Focus on security for federal buildings and officials also has intensified following the deadly Capitol riot by Trump supporters on Jan. 6 Since, mostly Democrats have proposed changes to security in Congress and other federal buildings, including courts. Legislation introduced this week by Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) included $182.5 million for the protection of federal courts, employees, and judges.

Meanwhile, threats against judges have also increased in recent years. Threats and inappropriate communications targeting judges rose from 926 to 4,261 between 2015 and 2020, according to the latest U.S. Marshals Service data.

“We must give the U.S. Marshals and other agencies charged with guarding our courts the resources and tools they need to protect our judges and their families,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the lead sponsor of the bill. Menendez said he made a personal commitment to Salas that he would put forward legislation to strengthen judicial security.

N.J. Shooting

In a video statement after her son was murdered, Salas said she learned the shooter “had a complete dossier” on her family and used that information to target them. She called on lawmakers to “identify a solution that keeps the lives of federal judges private.”

The previous version of the bill was met with some criticism.

Watchdog Fix the Court said it was “an overcorrection that threatened First Amendment-protected speech.” The group said at the time that the legislation could prohibit public reporting of documents pertaining to gifts judges receive, hampering transparency.

The legislation has support from the Hispanic National Bar Association. ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said the legislation is “urgently needed to preserve the ability of our federal judges to decide matters that come before them without fear of reprisal or physical harm to themselves or their families.”

While the new bill remains relatively similar to the previous version, it doesn’t include additional program authorization for home security systems for judges and their families. The Marshals Service received $10 million in a funding measure passed last December to update home security systems for judges and monitor online threats.

The bill allows the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to send a list of federal judges and their family members to data brokers, so they know which people are shielded. It would also create a path to stop violators in court.

Other Senate co-sponsors include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John Kennedy (R-La.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), who appeared before Salas as a prosecutor, and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) reintroduced the House version.

(Updates with a quote from Menendez.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com