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Federal judges urge Congress to provide more protection

Request follows recent shootings, critical comments

WASHINGTON -- Worried after recent attacks, federal judges yesterday urged Congress to provide more protection, including $12 million for security systems in most of their homes.

''Unfortunately, at the present time federal judges across the country are feeling particularly vulnerable, not only for themselves, but also for their families," said a letter from the Judicial Conference of the United States, the court's policy-making board, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

The request follows the slaying in February of a federal judge's family in Chicago, courtroom shooting deaths in Atlanta in March, and criticism of judges who refused to order the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. Democrats said Congress should approve the request.

''It's ironic that judges who are guardians of our rights are subject to violence, and we ought to do everything we can to protect them," said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York. ''This is a reasonable request that I hope every senator will be for."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said he would try to add the money to an emergency spending bill the Senate plans to consider next week. He was critical of lawmakers' comments following the Schiavo rulings.

''As leaders in Congress incite violence against judges, these same judges, the honorable men and women appointed to uphold America's laws and ideals, are living in fear of violence," Kennedy said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, plans to hold hearings next month on judicial and courthouse security. ''They have a risky job and they are entitled to security," he said.

Republicans have been criticized for some statements about the federal courts after the Schiavo decision. House majority leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, raising the prospect of impeachment, said then, ''The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said this week he wonders if frustration against perceived political decisions by judges ''builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence, certainly without any justification."

Cornyn said in a letter yesterday that he is outraged by courtroom violence, and that he's not aware of evidence linking judges' decisions with possible violence. ''I certainly hope that people will not construe my remarks on Monday to state otherwise," he said.

The judges' letter to President Bush and Congress, which sets the federal court's budget, was written by the conference's administrative director, Leonidas Ralph Mecham.

''Often, when a judge makes a decision in a case, even though it faithfully follows federal law, that judge is subject to harsh, sometimes vicious, criticism," Mecham said. ''The Judicial Conference wants to ensure that this criticism does not result in physical harm to judges and their families."

Judges themselves now must pay for internal security at their homes, Judge Jane Roth of the Philadelphia-based US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said last month. She heads the conference's committee on security and facilities.

It was not immediately known whether the government pays internal home security for the Supreme Court, which is not included in the conference's request.

There are about 2,200 active and semiretired judges and magistrates in the federal court system, court officials said.

The judges, in their letter, said they also want increased funding for the US marshals who provide their security; more marshals assigned to courtrooms during criminal proceedings; and more people hired for the marshals' threat assessment office, which has three employees.

In the Chicago killings, an unemployed electrician committed suicide after breaking into US District Judge Joan Lefkow's home and fatally shooting her husband and mother. A suicide note contained a hit list of seven federal judges and four state judges, newspaper reports say.

Yesterday, white supremacist Matthew Hale was sentenced to 40 years in prison for soliciting an undercover FBI informant to kill Lefkow in retaliation for her ruling in a trademark dispute.

In Atlanta, a state judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy, and a federal agent were killed after an unshackled man being escorted to court for a rape trial allegedly stole a deputy's gun, opened fire, and then fled.

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