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As threats against judges soar, some speak out

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(CHARLOTTE, N.C.) — A Greenville, South Carolina, man pleaded guilty on Friday for sending a threatening letter to a federal judge that read, in part, “I have watched you leave the courthouse numerous times and plotted to get my revenge.”

Authorities say the handwritten letter goes on to say, “you best to make sure they lock me away for good cause I’m going to kill you or blow that courthouse up.”

That man, Alvin Parks, was already being held at the Greenville County Detention Center on other charges.

Judge Laura Beyer, who sits on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Charlotte, North Carolina, told ABC News that the case, while not involving a bankruptcy judge, is a reminder that “these threats are real.”

“I think we all feel pretty protected at the courthouses when we are here, but it’s the unknown threat, when we are away from the federal courthouse,” she said.

The incident, just one of the skyrocketing number of threats to federal judges, underscores just how dangerous the judicial profession has gotten.

The cases before federal bankruptcy court judges, in particular, deal with very personal issues, from divorce proceedings to someone’s business and that could raise someone’s temperature, according to two judges who spoke to ABC News.

“The bottom line is whoever is in front of a federal bankruptcy judge is in a very stressful situation,” said Judge Mitchell Herren, whose bankruptcy court is in Wichita, Kansas. “Their businesses, their homes, their cars, their financial independence, those things are all often at stake.”

The people who appear before bankruptcy judges can range from wealthy lawyers to people who might not have a lawyer at all.

“The process of bankruptcy is very complicated and tedious,” Herren said. “And the folks that don’t have lawyers, often, there’s no one to shepherd them through that process. That, right there, can create a unique kind of security concern because people are very stressed. They’re oftentimes at threat of losing something very near and dear to them be it their home or their car or their business or their retirement account if they thought someone’s payment of a debt to them was going to be their retirement.”

Herren said it is “very easy,” under these circumstances, “for emotions to run very high.”

“When people have trouble understanding that process, sometimes distress kind of overwhelms them and it just becomes easier to call it all a conspiracy theory. And the judge who might have made a decision against them can often become the bad person in the mix in their eyes,” Herren said of what can happen in bankruptcy court. “And so that’s one of the ways to describe the security threat that occurs in bankruptcy courts and we live in a day and age where people seem at times increasingly willing to lash out emotionally instead of trying to handle their frustrations in other ways.”

Threats to federal judges and prosecutors saw a triple-digit increase in 2023, according to statistics released by the U.S. Marshals Service in February. In 2023, there were 457 federal judges targeted with threats and 155 federal prosecutors, the agency said.

Judge Beyer told ABC News security for federal judges starts with engaging with the U.S. Marshals whose responsibility it is to protect judges.

She cited the widely publicized case of a county judge in Nevada who, when handing down a sentence, was seen on video being attacked by a defendant who lunged over the bench.

“We really have to react and not just an active shooter type situation, but a situation like happened in Nevada, or what if there’s a medical emergency in the courtroom, or what if there is a fire while we have a court room full of people, but I’ve been on the bench since 2011 I don’t remember talking about these things so much in the past, and just seems to be front of mind these day,” Beyer said.

Both judges say they don’t believe threats to federal judges are going to hinder the quality of candidates wanting to be federal bankruptcy judges.

“I do not think that it has served as a hindrance or as something that has prevented otherwise qualified candidates from applying,” Beyer said, citing her conversations and reviewing applications from an open position on her bench. “And frankly, if someone called me and asked me, should that be something that keeps them from applying for the position, I would say, no , I mean, am I sort of conscious and aware of my surroundings and do I try to be vigilant at all times? Yes, but do I feel uncomfortable? I don’t.”

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