Trump supporters' threats to Florida warrant judge spur democracy concerns
Hundreds of federal judges face the same task every day: review an affidavit submitted by federal agents and approve requests for a search warrant. But for U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the fallout from his decision to approve a search warrant has been far from routine.
He has faced a storm of death threats since his signature earlier this month cleared the way for the FBI to search former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate as part of a probe into whether he inappropriately removed sensitive materials from the White House. Reinhart's home address was posted on right-wing sites, along with antisemitic slurs. The South Florida synagogue he attends canceled its Friday night Shabbat services in the wake of the uproar.
Trump has done little to lower the temperature among his supporters, decrying the search as political persecution and calling on Reinhart to recuse himself in the case because he has previously made political donations to Democrats. Reinhart has also, however, contributed to Republicans.
The threats against Reinhart are part of a broader attack on law enforcement, particularly the FBI, by Trump and his allies in the aftermath of the search. But experts warn that the focus on a judge, coming amid an uptick in threats to the judiciary in general, is dangerous for the rule of law in the U.S. and the country’s viability as a democracy.
“Threats against judges fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities strike at the very core of our democracy,” U.S. Second Circuit Judge Richard J. Sullivan, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Security, said in a statement issued recently in the aftermath of the search. “Judges should not have to fear retaliation for doing their jobs.”
A phone message left in Reinhart's chambers was not immediately returned. He will preside over a hearing Thursday on a request by media organizations, including The Associated Press, seeking to unseal the underlying affidavit the Justice Department submitted when it asked for the Mar-a-Lago search warrant.
Asked to comment about 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 continuously review the measures in place and take appropriate steps to provide protection as necessary to ensure the integrity of the federal judicial process.”
The vitriol directed at the magistrate, while striking, is becoming increasingly common. In 2014, the U.S. Marshals Service handled 768 incidents that it classified as “inappropriate communications” aimed at judges and court employees. Last year, it reported more than 4,500.
At one point “virtually everyone recognized how inappropriate it was to threaten the life or security of a judge because of a disagreement with the judge’s decision,” said Barbara Lynn, chief judge for the northern district of Texas. “Now I think there are a lot of people that don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Lynn is one of many judicial officials pushing Congress to approve the Daniel Anderl bill, named for the 20-year-old son of District Judge Esther Salas. He was killed in 2020 when a gunman came to their New Jersey home. His father was wounded. 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.
In June, a retired Wisconsin county circuit judge, John Roemer was killed in his home in what authorities said was a targeted killing by a gunman, who fatally wounded himself as well. Later that month, protesters converged on the homes of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices after they overturned a 49-year-old ruling that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Police arrested a man with knives, zip ties and a gun near the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and he said he planned to kill the conservative justice. Congress rapidly approved money to bolster security at the justices' homes and provide 24-hour protection to their families.
The increased targeting of judges comes as trust in public institutions plummets and partisan rhetoric escalates. It's part of a pattern that Steven Levitsky has seen before.
“This is a classic precursor of a democratic breakdown,” said Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of How Democracies Die. “To call this a warning sign is an understatement.”
Trump’s initial presidential campaign — during which he personally condemned a judge who ruled against him in a lawsuit over his now-defunct Trump University — changed the ground rules governing threats and explosive rhetoric, said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC.
“There are threats everywhere now, it’s become more normalized because he changed what was allowed in public discourse,” Weil said, who said both the right and the left have turned to threatening the judicial branch.
Nathan Hall, a principal consultant with the National Center for State Courts, noted that the combination of lagging public trust, coupled with access to judges’ addresses and personal information impacts everyone from nationally-known Supreme Court justices to otherwise anonymous state judges.
“This gets to the core issue of having equal access to justice, a core foundational principle of our ability to function as a third and independent branch of government. It’s really shaken to the core,” Hall said. “Judges are just people at the end of the day. They put on a robe, but they still go home to their families.”
The most recent warning sign came after last week's search of 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 of three different federal laws, including one that governs gathering, transmitting or losing defense information under the Espionage Act, according to court records.
Trump accused the government of abuse of power in targeting him, and his supporters railed against the search online, targeting the FBI and Department of Justice. An armed man who posted threats against the FBI on Trump's Truth Social network was killed by authorities after trying to storm the agency's Cincinnati office.
Still, Trump and his supporters have waged rhetorical war against the FBI for years since the investigation into whether his initial campaign was aided by Russia in 2016. 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 mirrors what demagogues have done in other countries where democracy has collapsed. “A popularly elected leader targeting a judiciary is often one early indicator of democratic erosion,” Helmke said in an email.
Helmke cited Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru as places where an incoming administration vowed to clean up the judiciary, then stocked it with its followers. “The public never develops any real trust or confidence in the judiciary, and it is essentially costless for each incoming administration to use the previous government’s manipulation of the judiciary as a pretext to create the court it wants, Helmke said. ”The end result is no judicial independence and no rule of law."
Hall said people can look at other countries and see what happens when public servants fear reprisals, places where “the rule of law has suffered. I guess you probably get a lot of differences of opinions on how far down that road we’re already hitting, but it raises the important question.”