Court Security Improvement Act

Now comes this bill before us, the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007. This bill is the kind of bill which routinely passes in the Senate with no debate. The reason is, it isn't debatable. It comes down to a question of protecting the men and women who serve in the Federal judiciary.

This is an issue which is personal with me. In 2005, one of my close personal friends, a woman I appointed to the Federal court in Chicago, Joan Lefkow, went through a tragic personal experience. Someone invaded her home and murdered her husband and mother. Those killings were perpetrated by a disgruntled litigant who had his case dismissed by Judge Lefkow.

It was an unwelcomed wake-up call for our country. It sensitized many of us to the vulnerability of our judges and their families.

It was not an isolated incident. Last year, a judge was shot in Reno, NV. In Louisville, KY, a man pleaded guilty to threatening to kill the Federal judge presiding over the outcome of his arson trial. In March 2005, three people were killed in an Atlanta courthouse, including a county judge. Just yesterday, there were reports that the car and garage of an Illinois State court judge on the north side of Chicago were damaged by gunshots.

The sad reality is that violence and threats against our judges are on the rise. Between 1996 and 2005, the number of threats and inappropriate communications toward judges went up dramatically--from 201 in 1996 to 943 in 2005. There may be many reasons for this increased violence against judges, but one of the most regrettable is the rise in criticism and condemnation of these fine men and women not only in the halls of Congress but on some of the shock radio shows that go on and pass as news on some cable channels and radio stations.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a woman I respect, who recently retired from the Supreme Court, said recently:

The breadth and intensity of rage currently being leveled at the judiciary may be unmatched in American history.

It is time for the rage and irresponsible rhetoric to come to an end. It is also time for Congress to step up and increase protection for judges.

In 2005, Senator Obama, my junior colleague from Illinois, and I helped obtain an appropriation after the terrible Lefkow incident. We wanted to provide enough money so judges would have some basic protection in their home.

The bill we vote on today--the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007--is another important response. It passed the Senate last year on two different occasions. The House of Representatives refused to take it up. Let me touch on a couple important provisions in this bill, and then let me tell you why, at the end of these remarks, we have reached another terrible moment when it comes to considering a bill of this importance.

First, the bill has new criminal penalties for misusing personal information to threaten harm to judges and their families. It expands the definition of dangerous weapons that are banned from Federal courts. It extends and expands the ability of Federal judges to redact personal information from their financial disclosures that might endanger themselves or their families. It allocates more resources to the U.S. Marshals Service to protect Federal judges. It requires better coordination between the Marshals and the Federal judiciary. It authorizes State courts to receive Federal grant money to improve security. It is essential that we pass this legislation, and it is long overdue.

A year ago, on the first anniversary of the murders of her husband and mother, Judge Lefkow, of Chicago, released a statement. Here is what she said:

The tragedies which we experienced have necessarily alerted me to the fragility of judicial security. Accordingly, I have made a commitment to all of my judicial sisters and brothers to do all in my power to help improve the safety of all judges in the years ahead. It is my fervent hope that nothing that happened in Chicago and Atlanta last year will ever be repeated.

Those are words we need to take to heart today. I commend Majority Leader Harry Reid for bringing up this bill. This Court Security Improvement Act is a legacy to the memory of those judges and family members whose lives were cut short by tragic, vicious acts of violence.

Judges should always feel secure in their courtrooms and safe at home. We owe it to them and their families to do everything we can to protect them.