Federal Judge Esther Salas is on a crusade.
In July her husband and their son were gunned down at the family’s home in New Jersey. Her husband survived. Her son did not.
On Friday, she will attend the New Jersey governor’s signing of a new state law that makes it a crime to publish online or elsewhere personal addresses and telephone information about state judges or their families. Salas will be there even though the law protects only state judges, not federal judges, because the law is named after her son, Daniel.
Salas remembers the night of the attack on her family with horrible clarity.
Ironically, “It was just one of the best nights ever,” she says. She and her son were in the basement clearing up after his 20th birthday party. And they were talking. “I remember him saying, ‘Mom, let’s keep talking. I love talking to you, Mom.’ And at that exact moment, the doorbell rang … and before I could say anything, he just shot up the stairs,” Salas recalls. The next thing she heard was her husband screaming, “NO,” followed by loud bangs.
So loud that, as she raced upstairs, she thought a bomb had gone off. What she found was “just as gruesome.”
“There was my son … holding his chest, and my husband, who I didn’t know was bleeding out, who had literally crawled to the front porch to see if he could see any identifying features of the car. And he’s screaming, ‘Call 911. Call 911.'”
Shooter ‘was angry’
Her son was pronounced dead at the hospital. Her husband, Mark Anderl, shot three times, has undergone multiple surgeries since then, and is on the mend, a very slow mend.
The shooter, later identified as 72-year-old lawyer Roy Den Hollander, was found after he killed himself. He had appeared once before Judge Salas, months earlier, and she had postponed ruling on his case at the request of the government.
“He was angry with me for being a woman,” Salas says. “He was angry with me for being Latina.”
Hollander, a self-proclaimed anti-feminist, had been active in a men’s rights group. The FBI later matched his gun to the murder of a rival in that group in California. Found in Hollander’s rental car was a list of potential targets, including three other female judges. Also discovered was the latest online publication of his manifesto, in which Hollander railed about discrimination against men.
Threats against judges skyrocketing
The attack at the Salas home has a horrific familiarity. Fifteen years ago, the husband and mother of federal Judge Joan Lefkow were murdered at her home by an aggrieved former plaintiff. Four federal judges have been killed since 1979, and the number of threats is skyrocketing, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which reported nearly 4,500 threats and “inappropriate communications” last year.
The American Bar Association points to federal Judge James Robart, a George W. Bush appointee in Seattle, as an example. In 2017, after Robart blocked President Trump’s ban on travel from mainly Muslim countries, Trump tweeted derogatory comments about the decision, calling Robart a “so-called judge.” Robart received more than 100 death threats, according to the ABA.
Bipartisan support for federal legislation
The attack on the Salas home has, however, triggered a whole new response from Congress and the federal judiciary. Two days after the attack, New Jersey’s two U.S. Senators — Robert Menendez and Cory Booker — introduced legislation that would shield the personally identifiable information of federal judges and their immediate families. The legislation would bar disclosure of their home addresses, Social Security numbers, contact information, photos of their homes and vehicles, and the names of schools and employers of immediate family members.
The bill has other provisions as well, including the creation of what one judicial source called “a significant increase in technological expertise” at the U.S. Marshals Service, which provides the principal protection for federal judges. Federal judicial sources say that will be expensive, costing $250 million or more.
But the bill has some hefty bipartisan support, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Lindsey Graham, and its ranking member, Democrat Dianne Feinstein. So the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is hoping for a vote on the bill before a new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3.
Judges are not allowed to lobby for particular legislation. But Salas is speaking out about the need for increased security. The man who killed her son and so terribly wounded her husband had a complete dossier on her. He even knew where she went to church, and he had mapped out her different routes to work.
“There are so many things that can be done and aren’t being done,” she says. “This is a matter of life and death.”
Salas’ son, Daniel, was her only child. Before he was born, she had three miscarriages. “We referred to Danny as our karma baby and said he was all our children rolled in one,” she says. “I thank God every day for that blessing, and I also know that I was lucky to be his Mom for 20 years and I have to hold on to that.”
She has held on to her religious faith to get her though this time, she says, and being able to forgive his killer is part of that. Her husband was able to forgive when he was still in the ICU. It took her longer, until at a Mass at their house. “But since the day we both forgave this man, we feel lighter, you know,” she says. “We feel lighter.”