The federal court system asked Congress for $389.5 million to upgrade buildings and security across the US in the wake of escalating violence and vandalism.
“Over the past year, the federal Judiciary has suffered an increasing number of acts of violence and vandalism on and off courthouse premises,” wrote John W. Lungstrum, chair of Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget, and Roslynn R. Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the US Courts, in a pair of letters sent to Congress earlier this month.
The request, part of a wider one totalling $1.54 billion, came after an unprecedented year of vandalism and attacks on courthouses and staff, the letter said.
Although there was plenty of unrest in 2020, many protests were also carried out peacefully. Still, more than 50 federal courthouses were damaged during the year, according to the US court system. US Marshals counted 4,261 threats against judges and court personnel in 2020, a 360% increase from the year earlier.
“The threat to federal courts is getting worse,” the judiciary’s letter said. “A comprehensive approach is required to effectively address the growing violence and threats facing the judiciary.”
The letter listed several attacks, including the targeting of Esther Salas, a federal judge whose son was killed at her New Jersey home. In Arizona, a security officer was shot outside a federal courthouse. In California, a guard was killed in a drive-by shooting.
About $267 million of the requested funds would go to upgrading “aging perimeter security” at federal courthouses.
At a congressional hearing in February, Mauskopf listed particular courthouses in need of upgrades. They included a federal courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, which Mauskopf called “our highest priority,” because it scored 26.2 out of 100 on a security scoring system.
Government buildings carry those security scores to show how vulnerable they are. In contrast, a recently upgraded federal courthouse in Brenton, Illinois, jumped from 46.1 to 80.2 after a $4.7 million upgrade, Mauskopf said.
The request, which was sent to leaders of the House and Senate budget committees, also included $515 million for cybersecurity protection. That money would go to both IT systems and modernization.
A Colorado judge gave a scathing rebuke to a pair of lawyers after he dismissed their case challenging the results of the 2020 election, suggesting they were just parroting former President Donald Trump’s talking points.
Lawyers Gary Fielder and Ernest John Walker filed a class-action suit in December last year, claiming to represent the voting rights of 160 million Americans. They accuse a slew of high-profile politicians and tech CEOs of thwarting a Trump election victory with China and Iran’s help, according to court documents seen by Insider.
The pair have bankrolled their case via a crowdfunding page calling it “the largest civil rights class-action lawsuit in history.”
The case was dismissed in April, one of the numerous failed attempts to implicate voting technology company Dominion Voting Systems in an alleged plot to steal the election for Joe Biden.
But Federal Judge N. Reid Neureiter found the case so frivolous that he called Fielder and Walker in for a hearing Friday to ask them if they had been used “as a propaganda tool” for Trump, The Washington Post reported.
“Did that ever occur to you? That, possibly, [you’re] just repeating stuff the president is lying about?” Neureiter said, referring to Trump, the Post reported.
Fielder and Walker argued that they filed the case in good faith, and plan to re-file the case despite the threat of sanction from Neureiter, the Post reported.
Theirs is one of several cases that appears to be heavily influenced by evidence-free claims by the former president, despite none of them having succeeded in court.
It also named Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as defendants in a loosely-woven series of allegations of Democratic bias and unconstitutional modifications of electoral law.
It asks damages of $1,000 for every registered voter in the US.
Neureiter asked the lawyers if they had thoroughly investigated the case’s claims, such as that Dominion Voting Systems’ machines had allowed Chinese and Iranian tampering, NBC’s 9 News reported.
Neureiter compiled a list of factors that a “non-frivolous” lawsuit should be ready to consider, including Barr and Krebs’ statements. He told the lawyers that they should have been a “red light for you, at least a flashing yellow light,” the Post reported.
Fielder and Walker did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The FBI partnered with law enforcement around the world to get 12,000 devices loaded with a fake encrypted messaging app into the hands of suspected criminals – and then read every word. Monitoring the FBI-controlled app, called ANOM, gave law enforcement an opportunity to learn the inner workings of transnational drug and firearms trafficking organizations.
Andrew Young, the former assistant US attorney who oversaw Operation Trojan Shield, told Insider a primary goal of the operation was to send a message to suspected criminals that encrypted technology will not protect them.
“Building the evidence on all these other people, and all the arrests and the seizures, and certainly the murders that were prevented was incredible,” Young said. “But one of the main goals was actually sort of that public relations goal: to show that the FBI is willing and able to do something like this, and that there’s no reason to think they aren’t doing it now or again.”
Young wouldn’t expand on whether domestic extremist groups that organize over encrypted apps, like the Boogaloo Bois and Proud Boys, whose members have been tied to the January 6 insurrection, should interpret Operation Trojan Shield as a sign the FBI could be monitoring their communications.
“That’s harder for me to say just because I’m not in their minds and I don’t know what they think, or what they intend to do, or what they should do to be better at what they’re trying to do,” Young said.
“I think what they should take from this is that law enforcement is not just going to sit back and say, ‘This isn’t a solvable problem so we just can’t do anything about it at all,'” he added. “There’s creative people and innovative people within the government and within law enforcement who are trying to solve these problems, and they’re going to continue to work at it regardless of whatever platform they have.”
How one of the biggest police stings in history got its start
Young was the Justice Department’s lead prosecutor on the ANOM case until August 2020, when he left to take a job at the law firm Barnes & Thornburg. He told Insider how what began as a investigation into a small-time gambling ring morphed into one of the biggest police stings in history.
“One of the best achievements of this entire operation was that it never got out,” Young said, given that more than a dozen nations participated.
The case got its start when investigators looking into the organizer of a gambling ring in 2015 realized the man was actually making most of his illegal proceeds from drug trafficking, according to Young. The man kept the gambling and drug businesses siloed, and used an encrypted communications device to be especially secretive when it came to the trafficking, he said.
That led the Justice Department to set its sights on Phantom Secure, a company they believed was creating encrypted devices and marketing them toward criminal enterprises that used them to freely share details about their operations. In 2018, Vincent Ramos, the chief executive of Phantom Secure, pleaded guilty to leading a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
At that time, Young’s team considered using the Phantom Secure technology for wiretaps, but he said it fell through.
“Then we were at the stage where you can just shut everything down and move on to something entirely different, or think, ‘Is there something left here to do?'” Young said. “That’s around the time we were presented with a device and the opportunity to have a covert operation. That was the early, early stage of the idea.”
After overcoming the logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to getting the operation off the ground both in the US and in Australia, Young’s team learned through the FBI-controlled app how criminal enterprises communicate and ship illegal drugs internationally – often times by hiding it in shipments of food items, like hollowed-out pineapples or tuna cans.
Information gleaned from the app had led to the arrests of more than 800 people in Australia and across Europe as of last week, according to the FBI and Europol. In addition to the drugs, law enforcement also seized 55 luxury vehicles and more than $48 million in various currencies as part of the operation, Europol said in its release.
Agents learned through those conversations some of the more creative ways that overseas drug traffickers try to move product, which include stuffing drugs into boxes of bananas, hollowed-out pineapples, and tuna cans.
The FBI said informants provided suspected criminal organizations around the world with 12,000 devices equipped with the FBI-controlled messaging app, which is called ANOM. Operation Trojan Shield, as it’s called, gave law enforcement an opportunity to learn the inner workings of international drug and firearms trafficking organizations.
Court documents first reported by Motherboard’s Joseph Cox show just how closely law enforcement was able to monitor suspected criminals’ plans through an app they were made to believe was secure. The documents include examples of the “criminal conversations” the FBI reviewed.
The court documents quote two people identified by the usernames Ironman and Real G who used the ANOM app in May 2020 to discuss how they would transport drugs between Colombia and Hong Kong. Ironman told Real G that there was no corrupt official at the Hong Kong port to clear a shipment, and asked how the cocaine would be shipped.
In response, Real G sent a photo of packages of suspected cocaine and said it would be shipped in crates of bananas.
“They cover this with a layer of banana,” the user said, according to the court documents.
The court documents show that in October 2020, an organization arranged to transport cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium in a shipping container hidden among cans of tuna. US agents who worked in Brussels searched the container alongside local police and found 613 kilograms of cocaine inside, and an additional 1,523 kilos of the drug were found in a different container headed to Antwerp, according to the documents.
In April 2021, the FBI learned that a criminal organization was planning to ship cocaine from Ecuador to Spain using a container filled with refrigerated fish, according to the documents. Law enforcement from Spain searched the container when it arrived into the Port of Algeciras and found 1,401 kilos of cocaine.
A month later, the FBI and law enforcement in Spain intercepted a shipment to the same port and found 1,595 kilos of cocaine stuffed into hollowed-out pineapples, according to the documents.
“The conversations detailed above are a small sample set pulled from more than 20 million messages that FBI reviewed of Anom’s criminal users,” FBI Special Agent Nicholas I. Cheviron wrote in a court document seeking a search warrant for Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. “From those messages, more than 450,000 photos have been sent detailing conversations on other encrypted platforms discussing criminal activity, cryptocurrency transactions, bulk cash smuggling, law enforcement corruption, and self-identification information.”
Information gleaned from the app ultimately led to the arrests of 800 people in Australia and across Europe, according to the FBI and Europol. In addition to the drugs, law enforcement also seized 55 luxury vehicles and more than $48 million in various currencies as part of the operation, Europol said in its release.
The current right wing majority reviewing the case was appointed by presidents who came to power without the popular vote. John Roberts and Samuel Alito were appointed in George W. Bush’s second term, but of course he won his first term in a disputed electoral squeaker while losing the national popular vote. Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett were appointed by Donald Trump, a significantly bigger loser when it comes to the national vote.
So five of the six conservatives who make up the 6 to 3 majority were appointed by presidents without majority support. And all of Trump’s appointees brought controversy: Gorsuch and Barrett through the twisted logic of the Republican Senate to ensure their appointments, and Kavanaugh under a cloud of sexual misconduct allegations.
So when the Republican Senate smashed all semblance of norms by holding up a Democratic Supreme Court appointee to jam through Gorsuch – and then jammed through Barrett with the opposite narrative, the question became how would Democrats respond. One highly discussed idea was that the party should add seats to the Supreme Court if they came to power in 2021, a concept called court packing. Well now we’re here, and the Democrats have the chance to give America a Supreme Court that represents America.
To pack or not to pack
Chief Justice Roberts has tried in some cases to steer a moderate course for the Supreme Court – despite its heavily conservative lean – in order to keep it out of political and media crosshairs. As a result, there have been some surprises over the past year where one or more conservative Justices joined the liberal wing on a major decision, including an extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ employees and a decision to uphold DACA.
Roberts knows that history has its eyes on him, but his work will be 20% harder with the Republican majority going from 5 to 4 to 6 to 3. If Barrett turns out to be as reactionary as Thomas and Alito, Roberts’ desire to stay above politics becomes irrelevant.
Combine that with the Republican Senate’s 2016 zig and 2020 zag on filling Supreme Court vacancies during an election year, and the idea of packing the Supreme Court has taken on new urgency.
There are a number of different ideas for reforming the Court beyond packing. One proposal suggests limiting terms to 18 years. Another proposes more regular appointments, with each President appointing a Justice in the first and third year of each term. President Biden has also called for a bipartisan commission to look at these and other possible reforms to the Court.
Substantively, drawing on one or more of these ideas to change how and when Justices are appointed can counter the Republicans’ naked power grab and put the makeup of the Court more in line with the American majority. But politically, making any changes to the court is a tough sell for the Democrats.
From a procedural perspective, adding judges to the Court is well within Congress’ power. The Constitution does not set a number for Supreme Court Justices but gives Congress the power to determine how many sit on the bench.
The current makeup of the Supreme Court with nine Justices only began in 1869. Before then, the number fluctuated, with the original number in 1789 set at six, followed by changes down to five in 1801, up to seven in 1807, nine in 1839, and briefly ten during the Civil War, then back down to seven in 1866 until it landed on nine in 1869. Changing the makeup is surprisingly easy. Legislation to do so would need to pass both the US House of Representatives and Senate with simple majorities and then get the president’s signature.
But the length of the current make up means every American knows only a Supreme Court with nine Justices – with many likely not realizing that change is doable – makes the Democrats’ narrative that much harder. It would be easy for the Republicans to put the Democrats on defense on this issue, and it would distract from the many other agenda items that President Biden wants to accomplish.
So if packing is too high a bar, there are other tactics the Dems can employ. The last two Democratic presidents had Supreme Court picks in their first year in office. If history holds, Justice Stephen Breyer will step down and make way for a new appointee.
As a rule, the Republicans have been much better than the Democrats at appointing younger Justices to the Court, as well as throughout the federal judiciary. The average age of Trump’s appellate judge appointees, for example, was 47 – five years younger than Obama’s – and 76 of the youngest 100 federal appellate judges have been appointed by Republican presidents.
Two of the Republican Justices – Thomas and Barrett – were in their 40’s when they were confirmed. If he gets vacancies, President Biden needs to pick someone in their 40’s who can have a long life of influence on the Court.
In the past 52 years, there have only been four Justices appointed by Democratic Presidents. During that same period, there have been 16 Justices appointed by Republicans. Liberal Court members William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall both retired when George HW Bush was president, changing the balance and sway of the court to this day.
Democrats need to ensure that their Justices retire when they have the power to replace them. If they don’t take control of their fate, the Republicans will control it for them, as we saw with the replacement of Justice Ruth Ginsburg.
Democrats also should not hesitate to condemn the Supreme Court when it makes decisions that are out of step with the mainstream. They should be strong and remind Americans that this Supreme Court did not come to power via majority rule and does not adjudicate the will of the majority. If they start to play the long game that Republicans have played for a half century, the Democrats can begin to ensure that our nation’s highest court reflects our highest values.