‘All too frequent tragedies demand action to improve judicial security,’ Judge tells Judicial Conference

“Four federal judges and three family members have been killed since 1979. These horrific tragedies must stop,” Judge David W. McKeague told the Judicial Conference of the United States today.

The murder of New Jersey District Judge Esther Salas’ son and the critical wounding of her husband in July was the latest in a series of fatal attacks on federal judges and their families. “These all too frequent tragedies demand action to improve security for all federal judges and their families,” said Judge McKeague, chair of the Conference’s Committee on Judicial Security.

In early August, on the recommendation of its Judicial Security Committee, the Judicial Conference agreed to:

  • Seek federal legislation to protect and redact judges’ personally identifiable information (JPII), particularly on the internet;
  • Support the development of a resource to monitor, proactively, the public availability of JPII and threats against judges on the internet;
  • Support additional appropriations to upgrade and improve home intrusion detection systems at judges’ homes;
  • Support additional appropriations to hire deputy U.S. Marshals; and
  • Support a direct appropriation to the Federal Protective Service for security cameras systems at federal courthouses.

The recommendations were transmitted last week to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and Appropriations Committees. “We must ensure that federal judges are able to administer justice fairly without fear for their safety and that of their family,” Judge McKeague said.

In other action, the Judicial Conference approved an updated Strategic Plan for the Federal Judiciary and received a report on court operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Strategic Plan, which was last updated in 2015, takes into account trends and issues affecting the Judiciary, including many that challenge or complicate the Judiciary’s ability to perform its mission effectively. The updated Plan also recognizes that the future may provide tremendous opportunities for improving the fair and impartial delivery of justice.

“This Plan anticipates a future in which the federal Judiciary is noteworthy for its accessibility, timeliness, and efficiency; attracts to judicial service the nation’s finest legal talent; is an employer of choice providing an exemplary workplace for a diverse group of highly qualified judges and employees; works effectively with the other branches of government; and enjoys the people’s trust and confidence,” the updated Plan states.

“This Plan serves as an agenda outlining actions needed to preserve the Judiciary’s successes and, where appropriate, bring about positive change.”

Identified in the Plan are seven fundamental goals of the Judiciary:

  • The fair and impartial delivery of justice;
  • The public’s trust and confidence in, and understanding of, the federal courts;
  • The effective and efficient management of resources;
  • A diverse workforce and an exemplary workplace;
  • Harnessing technology’s potential;
  • Access to justice and the judicial process; and
  • Relations with the other branches of government.

The 2020 Plan was prepared following an 18-month process that included an assessment of the implementation of the 2015 Plan, a review of significant policy changes that had occurred since 2015, an analysis of issues to be addressed, and the consideration of updates and revisions proposed by Judicial Conference committees. To lead the Plan update process, a 19-person Ad Hoc Strategic Planning Group, composed of 14 judges and five Judiciary executives, was appointed by the Judicial Conference’s Executive Committee in consultation with the Chief Justice. In addition to Conference committees, the planning group sought input from all 13 circuit chief judges and 94 district court chief judges, the Federal Judicial Center, Judiciary advisory councils and advisory groups, Judiciary executives, and the Director and senior staff of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Drafts of the updated Plan were prepared by the planning group for review by Judicial Conference committees and consideration by the Executive Committee, which facilitates and coordinates strategic planning for the Conference.

The pandemic report focused on actions taken since the Judicial Conference’s last meeting in March 2020 when courts were beginning to leave courthouses and establish remote work environments.

“Our number one concern at the time was protecting the health and safety of our employees, litigants, and the public who use our courthouses,” said James C. Duff, Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, who reported to the Conference on how the Judiciary has coped with the pandemic. “As courts start resuming courthouse operations, we remain committed to protecting health and safety.”

In the past six months, numerous changes in court operations have been necessary so the business of the courts could continue. Temporary emergency changes to the Federal Rules, which normally take months, were instead agreed to in days. Technological capabilities were rapidly enhanced and expanded. A Judiciary group developed guidelines for conducting jury trials and convening grand juries. Probation officers and federal public defenders found ways to communicate with clients they could no longer meet in person.    

“It is fair to say that even two years ago we would not have been able to conduct nearly the same amount of business we have during the pandemic this year,” Duff said. “It is also fair to predict that two years from now we will operate our courts even more efficiently based on what we have learned during this pandemic.”

The 26-member Judicial Conference (pdf) is the policy-making body for the federal court system. By statute, the Chief Justice of the United States serves as its presiding officer and its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference convenes twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch. The Conference conducted its regularly scheduled biannual meeting today by teleconference due to travel limitations because of the pandemic. The Conference held its first teleconference session in March 2020 .

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FinCEN data show that these agencies searched the BSA database for about 133,000 cases in 2018—a 31 percent increase from 2014. FinCEN created procedures to allow law enforcement agencies without direct access to request BSA database searches. But, GAO estimated that relatively few local law enforcement agencies requested such searches in 2018, even though many are responsible for investigating financial crimes. GAO found that agencies without direct access may not know about BSA reports or may face other hurdles that limit their use of BSA reports. One of FinCEN's goals is for law enforcement to use BSA reports to the greatest extent possible. However, FinCEN lacks written policies and procedures for assessing which agencies without direct access could benefit from greater use of BSA reports, reaching out to such agencies, and distributing educational materials about BSA reports. By developing such policies and procedures, FinCEN would help ensure law enforcement agencies are using BSA reports to the greatest extent possible to combat money laundering and other crimes. GAO reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of 11 banks that varied in terms of their total assets and other factors, and estimated that their total direct costs for complying with the BSA ranged from about $14,000 to about $21 million in 2018. Under the BSA, banks are required to establish BSA/anti-money laundering compliance programs, file various reports, and keep certain records of transactions. GAO found that total direct BSA compliance costs generally tended to be proportionally greater for smaller banks than for larger banks. For example, such costs comprised about 2 percent of the operating expenses for each of the three smallest banks in 2018 but less than 1 percent for each of the three largest banks in GAO's review (see figure). At the same time, costs can differ between similarly sized banks (e.g., large credit union A and B), because of differences in their compliance processes, customer bases, and other factors. In addition, requirements to verify a customer's identity and report suspicious and other activity generally were the most costly areas—accounting for 29 and 28 percent, respectively, of total compliance costs, on average, for the 11 selected banks. Estimated Total Direct Costs for Complying with the Bank Secrecy Act as a Percentage of Operating Expenses and Estimated Total Direct Compliance Costs for Selected Banks in 2018 Notes: Estimated total direct compliance costs are in parentheses for each bank. Very large banks had $50 billion or more in assets. Small community banks had total of assets of $250 million or less and met the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's community bank definition. Small credit unions had total assets of $50 million or less. Federal banking agencies routinely examine banks for BSA compliance. FinCEN data indicate that the agencies collectively cited about 23 percent of their supervised banks for BSA violations each year in their fiscal year 2015–2018 examinations. A small percentage of these violations involved weaknesses in a bank's BSA/anti-money laundering compliance program, which could require the agencies by statute to issue a formal enforcement action. Stakeholders had mixed views on industry proposals to increase the BSA's dollar thresholds for filing currency transaction reports (CTR) and suspicious activity reports (SAR). For example, banks must generally file a CTR when a customer deposits more than $10,000 in cash and a SAR if they identify a suspicious transaction involving $5,000 or more. If both thresholds were doubled, the changes would have resulted in banks filing 65 percent and 21 percent fewer CTRs and SARs, respectively, in 2018, according to FinCEN analysis. Law enforcement agencies told GAO that they generally are concerned that the reduction would provide them with less financial intelligence and, in turn, harm their investigations. In contrast, some industry associations told GAO that they support the changes to help reduce BSA compliance costs for banks. Money laundering and terrorist financing pose threats to national security and the U.S. financial system's integrity. The BSA requires financial institutions to file suspicious activity and other reports to help law enforcement investigate these and other crimes. FinCEN administers the BSA and maintains BSA reports in an electronic database that can be searched to identify relevant reports. Some banks cite the BSA as one of their most significant compliance costs and question whether BSA costs outweigh its benefits in light of limited public information about law enforcement's use of BSA reports. GAO was asked to review the BSA's implementation. 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