(Bloomberg) -- Shortly before midnight on July 21, police arrived at the home of a federal judge set to preside the next day over a plea hearing in Washington in a high-profile Jan. 6 prosecution.
In what law enforcement later described as a “swatting” incident, an unknown person had placed a call to an emergency services line pretending to be US District Judge Emmet Sullivan. The caller claimed a violent situation was unfolding at the judge’s home. Local police responded to the scene.
The officers found no threat and no one was injured. They determined the call was a hoax, albeit a dangerous one -- when armed police respond to an emergency call on high alert, it escalates the risk of someone getting hurt or killed. The following day, the US Marshals Service sent an email to all of the judges who serve in the federal courthouse in the nation’s capital describing the incident, offering tips to judges on how to stay safe, and noting a possible connection to the Jan. 6 case before Sullivan, according to a copy viewed by Bloomberg News.
The previously unreported incident illustrates the stakes of the rising threats that judges are facing in Washington as well as across the country. In the aftermath of a New Jersey federal judge’s son being killed in 2020, the federal judiciary urged lawmakers to take steps to make it harder for personal information -- such as their addresses -- to fall into malicious hands but legislation has stalled in Congress.
In Washington, federal judges are handling hundreds of cases linked to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. The prosecutions, some of which involve far-right figures with large online followings, have presented their own particular set of security challenges.
Meant to ‘Intimidate’
Acting Marshal Lamont Ruffin wrote judges in the July 22 email that his office believed whoever called in the swatting hoax may have been trying to “intimidate” Sullivan into postponing a plea hearing that day. Ruffin didn’t name the defendant, but court records show the only plea on Sullivan’s calendar at that time involved Anthime “Tim” Gionet, a far-right internet personality also known as “Baked Alaska.” Gionet, who live-streamed his entry into the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense and is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
Ruffin noted the defendant had a “significant social media following” and had used his online platforms to call “attention” to his case. While stressing there was no evidence the defendant who appeared before Sullivan was responsible for the call, Ruffin wrote that there had been other security incidents when that person had a previous court date.
Gionet has posted online and talked publicly about the charges and his decision to take a plea deal. The night before his plea hearing he posted on Telegram, “Big court hearing tomorrow Please say a prayer for me Love you very much.” Less than an hour later, the hoax call came in that led to the swatting incident at Sullivan’s home, according to a timeline in Ruffin’s email.
Sullivan did not mention the events at his home the night before during Gionet’s plea hearing, according to a transcript.
Gionet’s lawyers, Joseph Scrofano and Zachary Thornley, did not return several requests for comment by email and phone.
Sullivan declined an interview request.
No ‘Sudden Movements’
The emailed warning to judges ended with practical guidance for them to follow if they became victims of a similar attack. The instructions included avoiding “sudden movements” that police might misinterpret as hostility and cooperating with police -- including allowing themselves to be handcuffed and having their homes searched. The message also told them to alert police as soon as possible about their status as Marshals Service protectees.
US District Chief Judge Beryl Howell said that the federal court in Washington continued to experience an increase in security incidents involving judges. She declined to share details about the threats. She said that the judges had confidence in the Marshals Service and the “safeguards” in place to protect the court, while also noting that the bill pending in Congress would provide more tools to get their private information off the internet.
“For the time being, I think we are pretty busy in our courthouse and we are staying focused on that,” Howell said.
The Marshals Service doesn’t comment on specific incidents but spokesperson Drew Wade acknowledged in a statement “that high-profile cases often generate increased attention, including threats.” He said the agency has addressed the changing risks for judges with updated training for deputy marshals on responding to online threats, education for judges and their families on how to identify and report incidents, and the creation last year of an Open-Source Intelligence Unit.
Several judges have spoken publicly about the security challenges facing the US District Court in Washington as the Justice Department pursues hundreds of cases against people charged with participating in the Jan. 6 attack. One judge last year said the court was “getting all kinds of threats and hostile phone calls” as he chastised rioters who continued to defend the violence at the Capitol. Another judge earlier this week cited threats in unprecedented numbers against government servants.
By nature of its location, the federal court in Washington tends to field a higher proportion of politically charged cases. A man was sentenced to 18 months in prison last year for leaving a graphic voice mail in May 2020 threatening to shoot Sullivan and his staff. Sullivan at the time was presiding over the criminal case against Michael Flynn, who had served as former President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser and was charged with lying to the FBI. The Justice Department later dropped the prosecution.
The July swatting incident remains under investigation, according to a police department spokesperson. “Swatting” refers to the acronym for “special weapons and tactics” teams that can be dispatched in a crisis situation. Ruffin’s email to the judges referenced the difficulty in tracking down perpetrators who can use a variety of tools to mask their identity and location when they place this type of hoax call.
The Marshals Services doesn’t make court-by-court threat data publicly available. In fiscal year 2021, the agency reported logging 4,511 threats and “inappropriate communications” against federal judges and other protectees nationwide, up from 4,261 the previous year. Threats have been steadily rising for years, Marshals Service data shows; there were nearly half the number of reported incidents in fiscal year 2016.
Judicial security received renewed attention this year after incidents involving other high-profile jurists. A California man is facing an attempted assassination charge in Maryland after he was arrested outside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home in June. The man allegedly was carrying a pistol, ammunition, a knife, pepper spray, and zip ties. Earlier this month, a woman was arrested on charges that she left threatening voice mails for US District Judge Aileen Cannon, the Florida federal judge presiding over former president Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the FBI’s seizure of documents from his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The US Marshals Service manages security for federal courthouses and the approximately 2,700 federal judges, as well as for thousands of other court officials and federal prosecutors. Judges typically don’t have 24-hour protection, but the Marshals maintain residential security systems installed at judges’ homes. There was an earlier push to enhance judicial security after a Chicago federal judge’s family members were murdered at her home in 2005.
US Supreme Court justices received around-the-clock security at home, among other protections, following a leaked draft opinion advocating overturning abortion rights. The Justice Department provided the additional security services and Congress quickly passed a bill giving the justices’ family members enhanced protection.
Congress has approved additional funding for judicial security, but a measure specifically aimed at making it harder to find judges’ personal information online has been held up. The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act of 2021 is named after the son of US District Judge Esther Salas. Anderl, a 20-year-old student, was fatally shot in July 2020 by a man who had litigated a case before the New Jersey judge and showed up at her home dressed as a delivery man, firing when Anderl opened the door. Salas’ husband was wounded.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, would bar commercial data brokers from selling, buying, or trading personal information about judges and their immediate family, including addresses and other contact details. It would also prohibit government agencies from posting this type of information online and authorize funding to help state and local governments scrub any publicly available databases. Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, this year blocked passage of the bill, saying he supported it but believed the protections should extend to lawmakers as well.
Wade, of the Marshals Service, said the bill “reinforces” their work to protect judges “so they can exercise their constitutional duties without fear, intimidation, or retaliations.”
“Threat actors’ abilities outpace the Marshals’ threat detection capabilities. Many threats made on the internet go undiscovered. Judges’ home detection systems are in many cases limited and outdated,” Wade wrote.
Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats from Salas’ home state of New Jersey, vowed to keep pushing the bill. Menendez’s office said Friday that he had introduced the text of the measure this week as a possible amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in the hopes of getting a final vote later in the year.
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