ANNAPOLIS — Citing violence and threats of harm against jurists nationwide, Maryland’s chief judges urged the General Assembly on Thursday to pass legislation to require the removal from the Internet of the home addresses and phone numbers of current and former judicial officers of the state.
Maryland Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Fader said all judicial officers are at risk and cited recent protests at the Bethesda-area homes of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“If those addresses can be found, think of the ease of finding the home addresses of the (Maryland) judge who took away custody of your children or sentenced a child or fiancé to prison and how upset those individuals can be with access to that information,” Fader told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“The purpose of this bill is to provide some protection for judicial officers whose official role necessarily puts them at risk of personal attack from disgruntled litigants by providing a mechanism to keep their home addresses and previously unpublished phone numbers from being available on the internet,” Fader added.
Senate Bill 221 would empower current and former judicial officers, their spouses, parents and children to request in writing that the person or entity who posted the information remove it from the internet. The information would have to be taken down within seven days.
The officers, spouses, parents and children would have a cause of action for violations of the law and be able to collect damages or punitive damages if the violation was willful, as well as attorneys’ fees.
Maryland Appellate Court Chief Judge E. Gregory Wells told the committee that threats against judges must be taken seriously, citing the July 2020 slaying of the adult son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas of New Jersey by a former litigant who found her home address online.
“Sometimes as I enter the Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis or the Calvert County Courthouse where I have chambers, I say a silent prayer that the day will go smoothly and there will not be any incidents at the courthouse,” Wells said. “As much as I admire and trust the security officers who protect those buildings, they can do little to protect me when I am out in public or at home.”
Maryland District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey said seven “credible threats” were made against district court judges last year. In addition, multiple rounds were fired at the Essex district courthouse at 12:30 a.m. Nov. 20, 2021, and someone tossed a Molotov cocktail at the Catonsville district courthouse last April 5, he said.
“There are very real threats that the judges and other judicial officers and commissioners face on a daily basis,” Morrissey told the committee. “We strongly encourage support of Senate Bill 221.”
Baltimore City Circuit Administrative Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion said her fellow judges have faced protests outside their homes and received threatening letters.
“The number and intensity of threats to judges have increased,” Carrion told the committee.
“The nature of a judge’s work … affects the lives of people before us in many ways,” Carrion said. “People have emotional reactions.”
Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, the committee’s vice chair, noted that Kavanaugh lives in his district and said state legislators are also subject to violent threats and protests at their home..
“We sign up for this, you sign up for this,” Waldstreicher told the judges.
“But the spouses and children of judges and elected officials do not sign up for this,” the Montgomery County Democrat added. “The intimidation and fear created by the protests that are done in violation of time, place and manner restrictions do incredible damage to people’s families and entire communities.”
Sen. William G. Folden, R-Frederick and a committee member, said the legislation should be broadened to include law enforcement officers, who also face violent threats for doing their jobs.
“I agree that there should be protection, but it doesn’t stop there,” Folden said.
“There’s a much larger group of people that we leave on an island in a lot of ways,” he added. “We need to do better for not just our chief justice and our judges and the stakeholders who work there, but there is another element of this and that’s the law enforcers who bring the people to court and have things happening to them.”
The legislation is cross-filed in the House of Delegates as House Bill 536.