‘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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