Justice Department Inspector General Says U.S. Marshals Can't Adequately Protect Federal Judges

Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, Washington, D.C. / Wikimedia Commons
June 16, 2021

The Justice Department Inspector General found that the U.S. Marshals Service lacks resources necessary to protect federal judges and other court personnel, according to a report released Wednesday.

The inspector general's findings come as the Marshals report an 89 percent increase in threats or security incidents involving protected persons. The investigation follows an attack at the home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in July 2020 in which an aggrieved lawyer murdered the judge's son and gravely wounded her husband.

"Resource limitations and competing agency budget and staffing priorities have impeded the USMS's ability to provide the level of protective services that it has determined is required given the increasing number of threats directed at the judiciary," the report reads. "Further, the USMS does not have adequate proactive threat detection capabilities to monitor the current threat landscape."

In general, the report concluded that the Marshals Service needs about 1,200 additional deputy U.S. marshals to fulfill its security mission, which would represent a 31 percent staffing increase.

"It's unconscionable that a mere 206 deputy U.S. marshals are assigned to protect the nation's 2,700 federal judges outside of courthouses—especially as threats to judges have increased in recent years," Gabe Roth of Fix the Court, an oversight group, told the Washington Free Beacon. "But it shouldn't have taken an IG report to raise the alarm over understaffing. Anyone who's reviewed recent Marshals Service records—which Fix the Court has done via FOIA—would see deputies constantly being pulled from far-flung locales to fill in coverage gaps due to shortages in personnel."

A Marshals Service intelligence unit is tasked with uncovering and tracking threats to agency charges, including judges. The inspector general found that the unit lacks the staff, funding, and equipment necessary to collect and analyze online threats or remove compromising personal information about judicial officers from the internet.

The marshals cannot provide continuous security for federal judges, so the agency offers to install home-intrusion detection systems on an opt-in basis for members of the judiciary. The review found that the program lacks funds to ensure routine maintenance of the systems it installs and that some participating members do not arm their security systems on a regular basis. The agency's program manager was not able to say why this is so.

The inspector general acknowledged that the agency has requested an additional $30 million for its judicial security mission for 2021 but found that additional appropriation is still less than "necessary to implement its security initiatives."

The report includes a May 26 memo from U.S. Marshals Service assistant director Heather Walker stating that the agency concurs with the inspector general's findings and has formulated preliminary steps for addressing its recommendations.

The report does not address the justices of the Supreme Court, whom the agency protects on request when they travel outside Washington. Authorities found that the gunman who attacked the Salas home also had plans to assassinate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.