Trump supporters’ threats to judge spur democracy concerns

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of federal judges face the same task every day: review an affidavit filed by federal agents and approve search warrant requests. But for US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the fallout from his decision to approve a search warrant was far from routine.

He has faced a storm of death threats since his signature earlier this month paved the way for the FBI to search former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he improperly removed sensitive materials from the White House. Reinhart’s home address was posted on right-wing sites, along with anti-Semitic statements. The South Florida synagogue he attends has canceled Friday night Sabbath services after the uproar.

Trump has done little to lower the temperature among his supporters, dismiss the search as political persecution and call on Reinhart to withdraw from the case because he has previously made political donations to Democrats. However, Reinhart also contributed to the Republicans.

The threats against Reinhart are part of a wider attack on law enforcement, especially the FBI, by Trump and his allies in the wake of the search. But experts warn that the focus on a judge, amid an increase in threats to the judiciary in general, is dangerous for the rule of law in the US and the country’s viability as a democracy.

“Threats against judges fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities go to the heart of our democracy,” US second judge of the circuit, Richard J. Sullivan, chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Security, said in a statement released recently in the aftermath of the search. “Judges need not fear retaliation for doing their job.”

A phone message left in Reinhart’s rooms was not immediately answered. He will chair a hearing Thursday at the request of media organizations, including The Associated Press, to disclose the underlying affidavit filed by the Justice Department when it asked for the Mar-a-Lago search warrant.

Asked to comment on measures it has taken to protect Reinhart and his family, the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement: “While we do not discuss our specific security measures, we are constantly evaluating the measures and taking appropriate steps to protect them.” where necessary to ensure the integrity of the federal judicial process.”

The vitriol aimed at the magistrate while striking, is becoming more common. In 2014, the US Marshals Service handled 768 incidents it classified as “improper communication” targeting judges and court officials. Last year it reported more than 4,500.

At one point, “practically everyone saw how inappropriate it was to threaten the life or safety of a judge because he disagreed with the judge’s decision,” said Barbara Lynn, chief justice for the Northern District of Texas. “Now I think there are a lot of people who think there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Lynn is one of several judicial officials pushing Congress to pass the Daniel Anderl Act, named after District Judge Esther Salas’ 20-year-old son. He was murdered in 2020 when a gunman came to their home in New Jersey. His father was injured. The bill, which has the support of groups ranging from the American Bar Association to the National Association of Attorneys General, would keep more of judges’ personal information private.

John Roemer, a retired Wisconsin district judge, was murdered in June at his home in what authorities believe was a targeted murder by a gunman, who also fatally wounded himself. Later that month, protesters gathered in the homes of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices after they overturned a 49-year-old ruling that women have a constitutional right to abortion. Police arrested a man with knives, zip ties and a gun near Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s house and he said he planned to kill the Conservative judge. Congress approved quickly money to strengthen security in judges’ homes and protect their families 24 hours a day.

The increasing focus of judges comes as trust in public institutions plummets and partisan rhetoric escalates. It’s part of a pattern Steven Levitsky has seen before.

“This is a classic precursor to a 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 — in which he personally convicted a judge who ruled against him in a lawsuit at his now-defunct Trump University — changed ground rules for threats and explosive rhetoric, said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Initiative at the United Nations. Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC.

“Threats are everywhere now, it’s more normalized because he changed what was allowed in public discourse,” said Weil, who said both the right and left have threatened the judiciary.

Nathan Hall, one of the chief advisers to the National Center for State Courts, noted that the combination of lagging public trust, combined with access to judges’ addresses and personal information, is impacting everyone from nationally known judges from the Supreme Court to otherwise anonymous state judges.

“This touches on the core issue of equal access to justice, a fundamental tenet of our ability to function as a third and independent branch of government. It’s really shaken up to the bone,” Hall said. “Judges are only human after all. They put on a cloak, but go home anyway, to their families.”

The most recent warning sign came after last week’s search for Mar-A-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort and political and personal headquarters. FBI agents seized 11 sets of classified information as part of an investigation into three different federal laws, including one regulating the collection, transmission or loss of defense information under the Espionage Act, according to court records.

Trump accused the administration of abuse of power by targeting him, and his supporters railed against the search online, targeting the FBI and the Department of Justice. An armed man who posted threats to the FBI on Trump’s Truth Social network was killed by authorities after they tried to storm the Cincinnati office.

Yet Trump and his supporters have waged a rhetorical war on the FBI for years since the investigation into whether his first campaign in 2016 was aided by Russia. The intense focus on an individual judge like Reinhart is relatively new.

Gretchen Helmke, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, said Trump’s action is reflective of what demagogues have done in other countries where democracy has collapsed. “A popularly elected leader targeting a judiciary is often an early indicator of democratic erosion,” Helmke said in an email.

Helmke cited Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru as places where an incoming administration promised to clean up the judiciary and then fill it with its followers. “The public never really develops trust in the judiciary, and it is essentially free of charge for any new administration to use the previous administration’s manipulation of the judiciary as a pretext to create the court they want, Helmke said. “The end result is no judicial independence and no rule of law.”

Hall said people can look to other countries and see what happens when officials fear reprisals, places where “the rule of law has suffered.” I think you’re probably going to get a lot of disagreements about how far we’re going down that road, but it begs the important question.”

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Riccardi reported from Denver.

More on Donald Trump-related investigations:

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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