By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
The judge presiding over a civil case involving Ammon Bundy issued a relatively unique order on July 5, prior to the start of the trial.
Fourth Judicial District Judge Nancy Baskin issued a courtroom decorum order, mandating spectators remain silent, refrain from outbursts, do not bring signs or wear clothing with inappropriate or disruptive messaging, among other basic requirements.
These are generally understood to be common requests in a courtroom, but issuing the decorum order is indicative of some of the challenges and threats judges, as well as other public servants, face.
The trial is ongoing this week, but in the weeks and months leading up to it, Bundy has called the judges “biased” and “wicked” in posts on his website and on his campaign website.
In a July 9th open letter posted online, Bundy directly addressed Baskin, alluding to potential violence should she rule in favor of St. Luke’s.
“Please do not sanction a war that may end in innocent blood and require others to bring justice upon those who are responsible for shedding it,” he wrote.
Bundy has also complained about other judges in his previous cases, always calling them out by name and sometimes encouraging his followers to go to their homes.
The threats judges face isn’t new, but the increasing frequency with which they’re a problem is cause for concern. Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan addressed such threats in the 2023 State of the Judiciary speech, which he delivered to lawmakers in January.
“We judges understand that disagreement with our decisions is part of the landscape in which we operate,” Bevan told lawmakers during the speech. “But when disagreement becomes personal, to the point of threats against personal safety and security, with individuals publishing our private information online, or coming to our homes for face-to-face confrontations, which I and other judges have personally experienced, a line has been crossed that must be reinforced and reinforced convincingly.”
Seventh Judicial District Administrative Judge Dane Watkins Jr. told Idaho Reports he’s seen an increase in threatening behavior during his time on the bench. He served as a prosecutor before taking the bench and said questions of security have become more prominent for those in public service.
He’s seen threats against the judges in his district and against himself. There have been security concerns at different courthouses and threats made, as well as doxing, in which a person publishes an individual’s personal information, such as address and phone number, online.
“The courts are in a unique position to be examples,” Watkins said. “Where else, other than in a court room, can you turn to a civil way to resolve conflicts?”
Watkins said he is aware that these issues create pause for people considering public service, saying “it is a different environment” than when he started in 2001.
“We want talented and motivated public servants to do it,” Watkins said. He hoped the courts could continue to preserve the rules of decorum and the sanctity of the courtroom.
“(Judges) make decisions that are often unpopular,” Watkins said. “You hope that you do it in a way that the parties respect the process and frankly accept the rule of law. … We must accept the rule of law, because if we don’t, we compromise what our country has enjoyed for more than 200 years.”
In posts on the website for the People’s Rights Network, a far-right organization run by Bundy, he repeatedly names judges presiding in various cases, sometimes attaching their photo, including this week’s civil case with St. Luke’s Health System.
Bundy has not participated in any of the litigation with St. Luke’s, has not attended the trial, and still has an outstanding warrant for contempt of court.
“If you think your rights are going to be secured in the courtroom, you are a fool,” said Ammon Bundy in a YouTube video posted July 15 talking about the case. He said he plans to defend his property and would not let St. Luke’s take it, should an order be entered.
Across Idaho, many courthouses have security and metal detectors at the door and a prohibition on weapons in the building. That decision is left to the local county commission that runs the courthouse.
In the Idaho Supreme Court building, it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that the building installed metal detectors at its entrance due to an increase in threats. Idaho State Police troopers man the door and patrol the building. The court also prohibits visitors from bringing firearms and other weapons into the building, with the exception of those carried out by law enforcement personnel.
The challenges in Idaho align with national trends. The United States Marshals Service protects roughly 2,700 federal judges and about 30,300 federal prosecutors and court officials.
In Fiscal Year 2022, the Marshals investigated 1,362 threats and reported 3,706 inappropriate communications or threats made against federal court employees.
In Fiscal Year 2016, for comparison, Marshals investigated 384 threats and reported 2,357 inappropriate communications or threats made, according to that year’s report.
The Marshals are also responsible for the protection of the United States Supreme Court, an issue that became especially important in 2022. The USMS estimated that approximately 1,500 individuals participated in protests at justice residences from May 2, 2022, through Aug. 1, 2022, following the leak of an opinion in the notable abortion case Dobbs v Jackson, according to the Marshal’s annual report.
The Marshals reported numerous threats of death against the justices, including a 2022 failed attempt to kill U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh at his home.
State level employees are experiencing the threats, too. On June 3, 2022, the Juneau County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin reported that Judge John Roemer died after a man broke into his home and shot him in what they called a targeted attack. Roemer had sentenced the suspect to prison more than 15 years earlier, according to CNN.
POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE
In 2021, the Idaho House of Representatives considered a bill to prohibit targeted picketing outside a residence, but it failed in a 31-38 vote. After sponsoring the bill, former Rep. Greg Chaney became the subject of targeted picketing at his home, as did co-sponsor Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise.
In both 2022 and 2023, lawmakers brought personal bills on the subject of picketing outside of homes, but neither of the bills received public hearings.
Green told Idaho Reports she did not have plans to bring a similar bill in 2024, but it remained a concern for her.
“If this continues to make an appearance, whether its law enforcement officers or judges or people who serve us, they are afforded privacy at home,” said Green, whose husband is a police officer. “As long as (picketing) becomes an issue, I will pursue this.”
“I will not tolerate those who serve our communities facing that,” Green said. “There’s going to be a point where they trip up and somebody is going to get hurt.”