Turning family tragedy into hope for others: Federal judges work to make the bench a safer place

Chicago News
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In recent years, threats and other inappropriate communications to judges have more than quadrupled.

One area judge is in support of doing more to keep the men and women on the federal bench safe.

Right now, congress is debating a bill that focuses on more than just keeping them safe. It aims at protecting their private information online too.

20 years on the federal bench and you might think a judge has seen it all.

In 2005, Judge Joan Lefkow, a U.S. district judge from the Northern District of Illinois suffered an unimaginable loss when a bitter litigant from her courtroom didn’t get the decision he wanted.

When a similar incident played out in New Jersey this summer, Lefkow understood that judge’s pain in a way the rest of us simply cannot.

As a result, Lefkow continues to support further protections for judges nationwide. It’s before congress right now.

This time, those safeguards would make it a crime to post a judge’s personal information in the cyberworld.

“All of us judges are vulnerable in a way that other members of the public typically are not,” she said.

Lefkow makes weighty, typically life-altering decisions every day in her courtroom atop the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago. Defendants are at her mercy and litigants hope and sometimes pray for a legal miracle.

They may be at the end of their rope and her decision could be their last hope.

“The law does not do what these litigants expect it to do,” she said. “That is, they have a sense that they’ve been wronged – and indeed they may well have been wronged – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to win a judgment against someone who wronged them.”

It was February 28, 2005 when Lefkow entered her home to find both her husband, Michael Lefkow, and her 89-year-old mother, Donna Humphrey, murdered.

It would be days before the killer would surface across the border in Wisconsin. He killed himself before police could make the arrest.

This past summer, U.S district judge Esther Salas lost her only son in New Jersey when a gunman dressed as a FedEx driver claimed to be delivering a package to their family home. He shot her son, 20-year-old Daniel Anderl, when Anderl opened the door.

15 years ago, Lefkow made the trip to Washington to get more money allocated to the U.S. Marshals Service. She wanted to enhance personal protection for judges who’ve been threatened. It worked.

10 years ago, a law was enacted in her family’s name so private information like her driver’s license and her car registration, could be tracked back to her workplace – the courthouse, not her home..

“That legislation also provided for every judge to, who wanted it, to have electronic security systems in their home,” Lefkow said.

Now it’s Salas’ turn. She is taking Lefkow’s protections one step further in Washington to protect what’s called “personally identifiable information  or PPI  found online. She’s lobbying for “Daniel’s Law” which prohibits addresses and phone numbers of judges to be posted on line in any form.

Before Lefkow’s husband was killed, he had run for circuit court of Cook County. Election law then required him to post his personal information publicly. Since then, that’s not required here anymore.

Between 2015-2019 threats and other inappropriate communications against federal judges and other judiciary personnel increased from 926 to nearly 4,449.

And roughly four federal judges have been killed over the past 40 years.

None of it, however, enough to slow down Lefkow. She is pressing on, finding joy in her five daughters and 13 grandchildren. And she is remaining on the bench, a true calling, even after she was tested in ways, most people will never fully understand.

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“I do love what I do in my career,” she said. “I could be retired. I could keep thinking, ‘I could hang out my robe.’ But I keep doing it and I feel very honored to have been given that responsibility by the president.”

Daniels Law just passed in New Jersey on Nov. 20. It reportedly has bipartisan support on the federal level as it continues to run it’s way through congress right now. Salas and others behind it are hoping for a vote before the end of the year.

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