The Campaign to Shield the Personal Information of Judges
A federal judge who experienced the unthinkable is advocating for laws that restrict access to personal information about state and local judges.
INDIANAPOLIS — Esther Salas, a judge in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, came to the 2023 Legislative Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures on a mission. She was there to appeal to legislators to take threats against state and local judges seriously, and to enact laws that shield the personal information of these officials.
On July 19, 2020 — a Sunday — a lawyer who was upset with the speed at which Salas was ruling on his motion showed up at her New Jersey home. He shot her 20-year-old son, her only child, and her husband. Her son did not survive the attack. Her husband suffered grave injuries.
Salas is Hispanic, a woman in a position of great authority. As the crime was investigated, a picture emerged of an act fueled by racial and sexist animus. Salas learned from the FBI that the information her attacker gathered enabled him to stalk her for some time before he acted.
After emerging from her grief, Salas was a driving force in the passage of a bicameral, bipartisan federal law named in honor of her son. The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act became law on Dec. 23, 2022. It establishes guidelines for safeguarding the personally identifiable information of federal judges and their immediate families.
Public trust in the justice system is decreasing, a troubling precondition for attacks against judicial officers.
Governing: Do you feel that what happened to you is registering as strongly as it should?
Judge Salas: We have seen a lot of progress since Daniel's murder on July 19, 2020. A number of states acted quickly.
Four-and-a-half months after the murder, New Jersey enacted Daniel's Law to protect personally identifiable information for both retired and active judicial officers. They've gone even further and expanded the scope of protection to include prosecutors and active and retired members of law enforcement.
We’ve seen other states follow New Jersey's lead. Iowa is one state that has done that. I believe Missouri did as well. But there are so many states that have yet to enact legislation that would cover state and local judicial officers as well as the federal judicial officers that sit in those states.
We need to have both the federal law that passed last year, and similar laws passed in states, to really make sure that personally identifiable information is appropriately sealed.
Governing: Are you seeing momentum in regard to this?
Judge Salas: Many states have proposed legislation, some have legislation on the books. We have to look deeper to determine if they adequately cover personally identifiable information, or how a judge goes about taking this information off the Internet and keeping it off state-run websites.
What we hope to do is provide the states with information about what laws are in existence and what laws are out there for them to make a very state-specific call as to what law would be suitable. I leave it to each state to make a determination as to what is appropriate.
I think it's very important for us to take an offensive approach, sealing the information that makes us vulnerable — our home addresses, our personal cell numbers. There's so much software out there that individuals wishing to do us harm can use to track us down without us even knowing.
We need to keep this information off of state-run websites, such as division of motor vehicles or voter registration websites. The most common way that people have been able to locate judicial officers is by looking up tax records.
Governing: Who are some of the groups working on this issue?
Judge Salas: We have seen a coalition come together. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts remains a very interested party. We have the Federal Judges Association and the corresponding associations for the United States magistrate judges, as well as the bankruptcy judges and bar associations such as the American Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association and the New York Intellectual Properties Lawyers Association.
Governing: Is there legislation you would consider to be a model for states?
Judge Salas: The federal law, the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, is a wonderful model that can be incorporated by the states. It keeps the personally identifiable information off federal databases. It restricts data aggregators from selling our information. It provides a mechanism for a judge who is unable to get a company or a website to remove his or her personally identifiable information to request that the administrative office of the court intercede on their behalf and pursue injunctive relief.
The law has many components, and one of the things that it does is take into consideration exceptions that need to be made for newsworthy stories or matters of public concern. I think it is a wonderful starting point for any state that's interested in pursuing this kind of security for their judicial officers.
Governing: Threats against other kinds of public officials are also on the rise — are judges at increased risk?
Judge Salas: I am very in tune with the concerns raised by various other representatives that serve our government, and I certainly am not saying they are not worthy of consideration and or protection.
But when it comes to democracy, when it comes to the rule of law, judges stand at the forefront of protecting our constitutional rights and upholding our democratic process. Judges make very tough decisions in cases that are very personal to the litigants, and more often than not, there are individuals that are not pleased with the rulings that a judicial officer makes. Even if you retire from the bench, you're not safe because you don't know who harbors ill will.
In protecting judicial officers, we are ultimately trying to preserve our democracy and the Constitution.
Governing: Is there data about how often judges receive threats?
Judge Salas: You can look at the statistics coming out of the United States Marshals Service. In 2015, there were 926 inappropriate communications against judicial officers. I'm waiting for 2022, but I do have 2021 statistics. I've committed this number to memory because it's just so alarming: In 2021, there were 4,511 inappropriate communications to federal judicial officers.
If these numbers hold true to 2,000-plus federal judicial officers, what might the numbers look like if we had a way of tracking at the countrywide level? There are over 30,000 state and local judges that are not covered by the federal legislation.
I suspect that the numbers would be equally alarming. I fear for state and local judges. They are very vulnerable in those states that have no laws.
Governing: Does political rhetoric denouncing the justice system add to this risk?
Judge Salas: All of us are responsible for the words that we utter. Words matter. Conduct matters. How we treat each other matters.
No matter who you are, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, to speak disparagingly of our justice system, to perpetuate false narratives that judicial officers are working in concert on any particular political agenda, does serious damage to our justice system. It does serious damage to our country.
Polls in recent years suggest that the public is losing confidence in our justice system. I fear that this type of rhetoric is playing into that erosion of the public's confidence.
We have to look at our country's history. We have to look at our Constitution. We have to be mindful that we have the best justice system in the world. We certainly do not want to do anything to erode the strong foundation that this country's been built on.
Since Daniel's murder I have made a very concerted effort to be impeccable with my words and to think about what I'm about to say, how I am going to say it and how it is going to be received. My hope is that we can begin to have respectful differing opinions, agreeing to disagree, agreeing to be open to another perspective.
Governing: Any last thoughts?
Judge Salas: We certainly can't say that these laws will inevitably stop all senseless violence against judicial officers. But we can make it hard for them to find us, to track us down, to hunt us down. The aim and objective is to make this personal information difficult to find.
I hope that we can begin to see legislators working with governors and chief justices of each state to review their laws. If there are laws on the books, determine whether they are sufficient as is, or could be amplified to broaden the securities that already exist. I would hope that states that have no legislation consider enacting legislation.
We stand ready to provide whatever information and resources we have to assist those that are interested in enacting judicial security laws.
All of us who serve as public servants love this country. We do what we do because we have such love for America. I would hope each state would consider enacting laws that help us protect democracy by protecting our judicial officers and allowing them to do their jobs without fear of retaliation, retribution or death.