Trump supporters’ threats to pass judgment spur democracy concerns – Alice Echo News Journal
By Gary Fields and Nicholas Riccardi
WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of federal judges face the same task every day: reviewing an affidavit filed by federal agents and approving requests for a search warrant. But for US Judge Bruce Reinhart, the consequences of his decision to authorize a search warrant were anything but routine.
He has faced a storm of death threats since his signature earlier this month cleared the way for the FBI to search former President Donald Trump‘s Mar-a-Lago estate to investigate whether he inappropriately removed sensitive materials from the White House removed.
Reinhart’s home address was published on right-wing sites along with anti-Semitic slurs.
The South Florida synagogue he attends canceled its Friday night Shabbat services in the wake of the riot.
Trump has done little to lower the temperature among his supporters, dismissing the search as political persecution and urging Reinhart to withdraw on the case over previous political donations to Democrats.
But Reinhart has also worked with the Republicans.
The threats against Reinhart are part of a broader attack on law enforcement, particularly the FBI, by Trump and his allies after the search. But experts warn that the focus on one judge is dangerous to the rule of law in the US and the country’s viability as a democracy amid increasing threats to the judiciary in general.
“Threats against judges performing their constitutional duties go to the heart of our democracy,” said Richard J. Sullivan, judge of the US Second Circuit, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Security, in a statement released recently after the search . “Judges should not fear retribution for doing their job.”
A phone message left at Reinhart’s room was not immediately answered. He will chair a hearing Thursday at a request from media organizations including The Associated Press trying to unseal the underlying affidavit the Justice Department produced when it requested the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago.
When asked to comment on the measures being taken to protect Reinhart and his family, the US Marshals Service said in a statement: “While we do not discuss our specific safety measures, we are continually reviewing the measures in place and taking appropriate steps.” to provide protection where necessary to ensure the integrity of the federal judicial process.”
The vitriol aimed at the judge becomes striking, but more and more frequent. In 2014, the US Marshals Service processed 768 incidents that it classified as “improper communications” to judges and court officials. More than 4,500 were reported last year.
At some point, “virtually everyone realized how inappropriate it was to threaten a judge’s life or safety because they disagreed with the judge’s decision,” said Barbara Lynn, chief justice for the Northern District of Texas. “Now I think there’s a lot of people who don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Lynn is one of many justice officials urging Congress to approve Daniel Anderl’s bill, named for District Judge Esther Salas’ 20-year-old son. He was killed in 2020 when a gunman came to her home in New Jersey. His father was wounded. The bill, backed by groups ranging from the American Bar Association to the National Association of Attorneys General, would keep more of judges’ personal information private.
In June, retired Wisconsin District Judge John Roemer was killed at his home in what authorities say was a targeted murder by a gunman, who also fatally injured himself. Later that month, protesters rallied at the homes of conservative US Supreme Court justices after they overturned a 49-year-old ruling giving women a constitutional right to an abortion. Police arrested a man with knives, zip ties and a gun near Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s home and he said he was planning to kill the conservative judge.
Congress quickly approved money to increase security in judges’ homes and provide 24-hour protection for their families.
The increased focus on judges comes as trust in public institutions declines and partisan rhetoric escalates.
It’s part of a pattern Steven Levitsky has seen before.
“This is a classic harbinger of democratic collapse,” said Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of How Democracies Die. “To call this a warning sign is an understatement.”
Trump’s first presidential campaign — during which he personally sentenced a judge who ruled against him in a court case over his now-defunct Trump University — changed the ground rules for threats and explosive rhetoric, said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
“There are threats everywhere now, it’s normalized because he changed what was allowed in public discourse,” said Weil, who said both the right and the left have turned to the threat against the judiciary.
Nathan Hall, a senior advisor to the National Center for State Courts, noted that the combination of a lack of public trust and access to judge addresses and personal information affects everyone from nationally known Supreme Court justices to otherwise anonymous state judges.
“This leads to the core issue of equal access to justice, a central tenet of our ability to function as a third and independent branch of government.
It’s really shaken to the core,” Hall said. “At the end of the day, judges are only human. They put on a robe but still go home to their families.”
The latest warning sign came after last week’s raid of Mar-Alago, Trump’s Florida vacation spot and political and personal headquarters.
According to court documents, FBI agents seized 11 sets of classified information as part of an investigation into three separate federal laws, including one governing the collection, transmission or loss of defense information under the Espionage Act.
Trump accused the administration of abuse of power by targeting him, and his supporters railed against online searches targeting the FBI and Justice Department. A gunman who posted threats against the FBI on Trump’s Truth Social network was killed by authorities after he tried to storm the agency’s Cincinnati office.
Yet Trump and his supporters have been waging a rhetorical war on the FBI for years, ever since they investigated whether his first campaign in 2016 was backed by Russia.
The intense focus on a single judge like Reinhart is relatively new.
Gretchen Helmke, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, said Trump’s actions reflect what demagogues have done in other countries where democracy has collapsed. “A popularly elected leader who targets the judiciary is often a leading indicator of the erosion of democracy,” Helmke said in an email.
Helmke cited Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru as places where a new government vowed to clean up the judiciary and then filled it with its supporters. “The public never develops real trust in the judiciary, and it is essentially free for any new government to use the previous government’s manipulation of the judiciary as a pretext to create the court it wants,” Helmke said.
“The end result is no judicial independence and no rule of law.”
Hall said people could look to other countries and see what happens when officials fear reprisals, places where “the rule of law has suffered. I guess you probably have a lot of disagreements about how far along this path we are, but it raises the important question.