Inside the threats federal judges are facing across the country: suspicious packages, white powdery substances, and a 'swatting'

E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse
A US marshal patrols outside the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, DC.Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • The US Marshals Service has been responding to a remarkable rise in threats against federal judges.

  • At least three times this year, the federal court in Washington, DC, received suspicious packages.

  • In another incident, police responded to a judge's home after receiving a hoax "swatting" call.

On a Monday in late April, dozens of Washington, DC, residents arrived at a federal courthouse for jury selection in the trial of a retired New York City copaccused of assaulting a police officer during the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

Gathered on an upper floor, many in the randomly-summoned group waited patiently — if apprehensively — for their turn to field questions from the judge, prosecutors, and defense lawyers.

Unbeknownst to them was a dreaded development unfolding floors below. While sorting mail, courthouse staff cut open a package to discover a suspicious powdery substance. Immediately, the mailroom staff alerted security and shut down airflow. A hazmat team soon arrived.

It was not the first time such a suspicious package had arrived at the courthouse, and it would not be the last. On August 16, another package with a powdery substance evaded the courthouse screening process and reached the chambers of Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly  — a rare breach that unnerved several judges and courthouse staff, according to people familiar with the previously unreported incident.

A spokesperson for the Washington, DC, Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department confirmed an August hazmat response to the federal courthouse and said the substance in the suspicious package turned out to be baby powder. Two previous suspicious packages, sent in February and April, contained substances also deemed to be nonhazardous, according to people familiar with those incidents.

The succession of suspicious packages was reminiscent of anthrax-laced letters that — sent via US mail — targeted government offices and newsrooms shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The biological terrorism led to five deaths.

Arriving just months apart, the packages sent to DC's federal courthouse served as reminders of threats judges are increasingly facing across the country.

That growing threat has been particularly pronounced in the nation's capital, where the federal trial court — long accustomed to high-profile, politically-charged cases — has been handling the wave of criminal prosecutions stemming from the January 6 Capitol attack.

On July 21, for instance, police responded shortly after 11:15 p.m. to the home of Judge Emmet Sullivan, who was set to preside the following day over a plea hearing in the prosecution of a far-right video blogger on charges related to the Capitol attack.

In a hoax call, known as a "swatting," an unknown person pretended to be Sullivan and claimed someone had come to his home with a weapon, according to people familiar with the incident and a police report.

Bloomberg first reported on the "swatting" incident.

Officers responded to the scene but found no threat and Sullivan "safe and secure," according to the police report. But the "swatting" could have ended badly — even tragically — with similar incidents across the country resulting in the injury or death of innocent people.

A police department spokesperson said the "swatting" — a term that refers to SWAT, or "special weapon and tactics" teams — remains under investigation.

Kollar-Kotelly, a 25-year veteran of the federal trial court in Washington, DC, declined to comment. Sullivan, a senior judge appointed in 1994, declined to comment on the "swatting."

In an interview with Insider, Chief Judge Beryl Howell acknowledged the rise in threats but said she had "confidence" in courthouse security and in the protection of the US Marshals Service.

"Our Marshal has been active in informing judges about the steps being taken for security, and the judges have confidence in the systems we have in place," Howell said.

Kavanaugh house protest
Members of ShutdownDC held a demonstration in support of abortion rights and to protest Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.Alex Wong/Getty Images

A Supreme threat

In early June, a month after a leaked draft opinion revealed that the Supreme Court stood ready to overturn Roe v. Wade and roll back the constitutional right to an abortion, police arrested a man a gun, a knife, and zip ties near the Maryland home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Dressed in black, Nicholas John Roske had arrived by taxi just after 1 a.m. outside Kavanaugh's home on June 8, prosecutors said. Roske would tell police that he was upset with the leaked draft opinion and planned to break into Kavanaugh's house and kill him — then turn his Glock 17 pistol on himself, according to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed in federal court.

He pleaded not guilty to attempting to assassinate Kavanaugh, a justice appointed by President Donald Trump.

Weeks before Roske's arrest, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered around-the-clock protection at the homes of all Supreme Court justices, among other security measures, in response to the leaked draft opinion. The arrest brought widespread attention to threats facing the federal judiciary. But, for years, federal officials have tracked a steady increase in the number of threats and "inappropriate communications" made against federal judges and others under the protection of the US Marshals Service.

During the fiscal year that ended in September 2021, the Marshals Service logged 4,511 threats and inappropriate communications against judges and other protectees — nearly double the 2,357 reported in fiscal year 2016, according to government data reviewed by Insider.

The total number of threats surged in the early years of the Trump administration, jumping from 2,847 in fiscal year 2017 to 4,542 in fiscal year 2018.

The total has remained above 4,000 every year since, according to a Marshals Service report for fiscal year 2021 — the latest year for which data are available.


As recently as Wednesday, a grand jury indicted a Pennsylvania man on charges he sent a letter to Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House January 6 committee, containing what appeared to be a white powder. A message in the letter alluded to anthrax and included threats to kill Thompson, his family, President Joe Biden, and Judge Robert D. Mariani, of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Trump supporters near Mar-a-Lago
Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather near his residence at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on August 9, 2022.Giorgio Viera/Getty Images

A Trump connection

Just months after the arrest outside Kavanaugh's home, the FBI search of Trump's home and private residence in South Florida prompted numerous threats to judges.

Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhardt, who approved the warrant authorizing the August 8 search, endured an onslaught of antisemitic attacks and online threats, including some targeting the synagogue where he serves on the board.

In September, a Texas woman was arrested on charges she left threatening messages on the voicemail of Judge Aileen Cannon, the Trump appointee presiding over the former president's legal challenges to the FBI's seizure of thousands of records from the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In those voicemails, the woman threatened to have Cannon assassinated in front of her family for "helping" the former president, according to court filings.

For former federal Judge John Jones, the threats against Reinhardt are part of what he described in an op-ed as an "all too familiar" trend.

"He and judges like him signed up for a job that entails risk, but they didn't sign up to be killed," Jones, now the president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The title of his op-ed: "I'm afraid a judge is going to be killed."

An appointee of President George W. Bush, Jones placed the blame, in part, on the "radicalized statements and utterly false narratives promulgated by former President Trump and his followers."

On the campaign trail and in office, Trump openly impugned judges and disparaged decisions against his administration. In 2016, for instance, Trump noted the Mexican heritage of San Diego-based District Judge Gonzalo Curiel to question whether he could rule impartially in a fraud case against Trump University. Trump called the Indiana-born Curiel a "hater of Donald Trump," demanded that the judge recuse himself from the case and said that someone "ought to look into" him.

In 2019, a federal judge in Washington, DC, blamed Trump for fostering the growing belief that judges reflexively decide cases not based on their reading of the law but rather in line with their personal political beliefs.

"We are in uncharted territory," said Senior Judge Paul Friedman, in an annual lecture delivered at the federal trial court in Washington, DC.

"We are witnessing a chief executive who criticizes virtually every judicial decision that doesn't go his way and denigrates judges who rule against him, sometimes in very personal terms," Friedman added. "He seems to view the courts and the justice system as obstacles to be attacked and undermined, not as a co-equal branch to be respected even when he disagrees with its decisions."

In an interview with Insider, Jones attributed the rising number of threats against judges to a "road-rage society" in which public officials are not confining their criticism to mere points of disagreement but impugning the character of anyone who stands in their way.

"It's completely irresponsible. It's like public figure malpractice, because we're dealing with a really volatile public at this point," Jones told Insider. "I'm sickened by the fact that we can't moderate some of this rhetoric. It's literally become so toxic now that I think we're going to get somebody hurt or killed by it."

It is a cultural problem, he said, and "there's no legislation that's going to stop that."

Legislation, he added, can at least help.

Rand Paul.
Lawmakers have blamed Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, for blocking legislation to help protect federal judges.Greg Nash/AP Images

Congressional solutions

Congress has approved additional funding for bolstering the security of federal judges.

But a bill designed to make finding judges' personal information online more difficult, including their home addresses, has faced obstacles despite bipartisan agreement.

Introduced last year, the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act was named after the son of Judge Esther Salas, of the federal trial court in New Jersey. In July 2020, a man who had litigated a case before Salas arrived at her home dressed as a delivery man. He fatally shot Anderl when he opened the door.

Salas' husband was wounded in the shooting. The judge was in the basement.

In an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes," Salas revealed that the FBI had found evidence that the gunman — who committed suicide after killing her son — was planning an attack on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"Who knows what could have happened? But we need to understand that judges are at risk," Salas said "That we put ourselves in great danger every day for doing our jobs."

Salas has pushed for the passage of the judicial security bill, which would prevent commercial data brokers from selling, buying, or trading personal information about judges and their immediate family members. The legislation would also bar government agencies from posting such information online and give funding for state and local governments to scrub databases of judges' personal information.

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has blocked the bill. In a June floor speech, Paul said he supported the bill but believes its protections should also extend to lawmakers.

"I agree that members of the judicial branch need better protection, but if recent years have taught us anything it is that members of the legislative branch need better protection as well," Paul said, pointing to the shootings of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican.

Paul himself suffered serious injuries, including six broken ribs, in late 2017 when a neighbor attacked him.

Judge Emmet Sullivan
Judge Emmet Sullivan was "safe and secure," police said, when officers responded to his house in response to a hoax emergency call.Dominic Bracco/The Washington Post

'Robes aren't bulletproof'

For Sullivan, the July "swatting" was not the first incident involving a threat to his safety.

In 2020, a Long Island, New York, man called Sullivan's chambers and left a graphic voicemail saying he would "not be safe."

At the time, Sullivan was presiding over the Justice Department's prosecution of retired general and former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn on charges he lied to the FBI about his communications with Russia's ambassador to the United States in the lead-up to Trump's inauguration. (The Justice Department dropped the prosecution, and Flynn later received a pardon from Trump.)

Judge Trevor McFadden sentenced the man who called into Sullivan chamber's to 18 months in prison, describing the threat as "heinous."

"Judicial robes aren't bulletproof," McFadden said.

A day after the "swatting" incident, on July 22, acting US Marshal Lamont Ruffin sent the judges an email with guidance to follow if subjected to a "swatting" akin to what Sullivan experienced.

His email instructed judges to allow themselves to be arrested and have their homes searched, to alert police as quickly as possible to their status as Marshals Service protectees, and to avoid "sudden movements" that could be misinterpreted as showing hostility toward first-responders.

Ruffin said that his office believed the July 21 hoax call might have been intended to intimidate Sullivan into postponing a plea hearing scheduled for the following day. His email did not specify the case, but Sullivan was set to hear a guilty plea from Anthime Gionet, a far-right video blogger known as "Baked Alaska" who had used his online platform to call attention to his prosecution.

The plea hearing went forward as scheduled, according to court records, and Sullivan set Gionet's sentencing for January. The court randomly reassigned the case to McFadden on Wednesday.

The Marshals Service declined to make its director, Ronald Davis, or Ruffin available for an interview. Following the publication of this article, the Marshals Service responded to a list of questions Insider sent earlier this month and declined to comment on specific incidents.

A spokesperson said the Marshals Service is expanding its efforts to educate judges and their families on how to report threats. Last year, the spokesperson noted, the Marshals Service stood up an open-source intelligence unit to enhance its ability to search for threats and other concerning online posts.

"The security of our federal judiciary is the cornerstone of our nation's democracy, and the Marshals take that responsibility very seriously," the spokesperson said. "Federal judges make hard decisions based on the rule of law in large part because the Marshals ensure they can make these decisions without fear, intimidation, or retaliation."

After the suspicious package entered Kollar-Kotelly's chambers, the court reviewed and tightened its mail handling procedures. It was just one of the security measures the courthouse has taken in response to rising threats.

Howell, the chief federal trial judge in Washington, DC, stressed that the courthouse has a very strong foundation of security."

"We're focused," she said, "on our work as judges."

This article has been updated to note that Judge Emmet Sullivan declined comment and include comments from the US Marshals Service.

Read the original article on Business Insider