Bill to limit information on judges stumbles in Senate

“It never seems to be enough and it is unfortunate that the federal judiciary will pay the price of this rebellion,” he said.

Menendez and Senator Cory Booker (DN.J.) have played a key role in pushing the legislation in the wake of the murder of the 20-year-old son of a New Jersey federal judge, Esther Salas, by a disgruntled attorney who left at her home in July 2020 with a gun. The bill is named in memory of Salas’ son, Daniel Anderl.

In advocating for the legislation, Menendez did not mention President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on the judiciary or how they could set members of the public on fire, but said the aim of the legislation is to overturn the freedom of judges. rule without safeguarding fear or favor.

“This legislation is about championing the independence of our federal judiciary and the safety of all those who serve it,” Menendez said.

An initial proposal from federal court officials earlier this year raised concerns among some advocates of transparency and the First Amendment. The judiciary sought “limited criminal enforcement authority”, as well as proceedings to enforce the removal of information posted on the Internet about judges and their families.

Critics criticized the breadth of information categories eligible for restriction, including things like credit card and vehicle registration plates, as well as the name of a judge’s spouse’s employer, addresses of primary and secondary residences, and links to clubs and religious groups.

Lawyers said it was difficult to see a public interest in discussing some of the details, such as credit card numbers, but they said the other links could expose conflicts of interest that could affect how a judge does his or her job.

“People should be able to talk about whether a judge should resign because of some conflict of interest,” Professor Eugene Volokh at the University of California told POLITICO in September. “These are completely legitimate things that people can talk about.”

The current version of the legislation put forward by Menendez and Booker is not intended to limit the posting of online messages about religious and community groups to which a judge belongs, but it does include most of the other data requested by the judiciary to be able to limit. The proposal for criminal enforcement powers and fines for removal orders offenders are also missing from the current version of the bill, allowing a court to order a preliminary injunction and order an offender to pay unspecified “costs” as well as attorney fees. .

The New Jersey senators have also added an exemption from disclosure of that information when it is “relevant to and displayed as part of a news story, commentary, editorial, or other speech on a matter of public interest.”

Menendez said on the Senate floor that the changes were the product of discussions with various officials and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Together, we have carefully updated the legislative language to uphold the right of the press to report on matters of public interest in the First Amendment and balance that right with our urgent need to improve the safety of federal judges and their families protect, ”said Menendez.

While the ACLU welcomed the changes, the group said in a letter to lawmakers last week that it does not endorse or oppose the legislation for the time being, and warned of a potentially chilling effect.

“We remain concerned that the bill remains vulnerable to constitutional challenges. We believe it is up to us to explain these concerns, although we do not take a formal position on them [the bill] right now, ”the letter said. “The first amendment protects speech in general and not only when it relates to matters of general interest” noting that the legislation “could lead to speakers being self-censored.”

The revised legislation continues to create a system in which federal judges can be asked to decide whether their colleagues’ personal information was invoked in a debate “on a matter of public interest” or irrelevant to such a discussion. And while the bill applies explicitly to social media posts, it’s unclear how the exception would work in the case of short-message sites like Twitter, where information about a judge could be posted without much additional context in the same post. .

The bill would allow judges to compile lists of personal information they wish to restrict and submit it to Washington court officials, who would then search social media and Internet sites for such information. Court administrators could issue removal orders on behalf of the judges.

While calling for legislation for lawmakers, Paul said he suspected Menendez and others would empathize. “I don’t know about you, but routinely the sheriff and the police have to come to our house for threats to my house and I’m not alone,” said Paul. The Kentucky junior senator also complained of aerial coverage of his home.

They posted … a satellite photo of my house on the nightly news. You know, basically indicating where every madman in the world can go to find my home. So I mean, we have to do something, ”said Paul.

An accompanying bill was filed in October by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (DN.J.) and is pending before the House Judiciary Committee.