Maryland senators and delegates will have to confront the shooting death of Judge Andrew Wilkinson when they return to Annapolis.
It’s not clear how an assassin found the Washington County Circuit Court judge’s house Friday night and shot him to death in his driveway. Maybe he followed him home, or maybe he stalked him on the internet. Law enforcement officials believe the judge was killed because of his ruling in a child custody dispute hours earlier.
State lawmakers knew this kind of violence was a threat.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee considered a proposal to give state judges and their families the power to remove personal information from online sources right after protesters picketed at the Bethesda home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh. Amid a rising tide of threats to federal judges nationwide, senators passed the bill and sent it over to the House of Delegates.
It stalled in committee. Expect it to be quickly resurrected.
“It will be the first bill we vote on,” said state Sen. Will Smith, sponsor of the bill and chair of Judicial Proceedings.
We live in an age of threats, where demagogues and blowhards spew hateful, violent language across the internet. I’ve been threatened with death, as have many journalists, public officials and others, just for doing our jobs.
You cannot deny that this climate of menace worsened once former President Donald Trump grabbed our collective lizard brain. His frightening attacks on judges, prosecutors and anyone connected to the multiple criminal and civil cases against him seem to reach ever more disturbing depths almost daily.
But you don’t need to fear Trump or have a Harvard law degree to know that this is not an original idea.
“The first thing we do is, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
That’s Dick the Butcher in Act IV, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part II.” He’s plotting a rebellion against the king. The lawyers, according to Dick and his friends, must go first because they keep things in order.
Killing lawyers is how you bring down a society, Shakespeare knew four centuries ago. Hack away long enough and our foundations collapse — including the rule of law. Claim the judges were unfair, and every loser with a long-nurtured grievance will sympathize with your cause.
“They are on the front lines of direct interaction of potentially aggrieved parties,” said Smith, who is a lawyer. “It goes back to a broader picture of where we are as a nation. There is a broader skepticism and loss of faith in institutions.”
If investigators are right, that’s what happened to Wilkinson, 52. The father of four was sworn in as a judge in 2020. Hours before he was killed at his house in Hagerstown, the judge decided a contentious divorce proceeding involving Pedro Argote, the man police suspect in his death. Argote wasn’t in the courtroom that day. On Monday, he remained on the run.
Washington County Sheriff Brian Albert said Wilkinson gave custody of Argote’s children to his wife, calling the ruling the apparent motive for targeting the judge. The judge cited Argote’s controlling behavior in preventing him from seeing his children.
There’s been more attention to threats against judges on the national level. U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ son was killed and her husband wounded at their New Jersey home in 2020.
FBI agents quickly identified a Manhattan lawyer described as a violent misogynist and racist as the killer. He targeted Salas because she was a woman, because she was Hispanic and because she was presiding over his lawsuits. He killed himself before he could be arrested.
Salas used her tragedy to advocate for legislation like Smith’s. She has said the man who killed her son found their address on the internet. Congress adopted a law giving federal judges the power to petition online groups for anonymity, and more than 1,000 had asked for it by this spring, according to published reports.
Until now, there has been far less focus on this kind of threat in Maryland. During that hearing before Judicial Proceedings in February, District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey said that seven “credible threats” were made against District Court judges in 2022.
That’s just a glimpse. A spokesperson for the Maryland Judiciary said that while the U.S. Marshals Service records threats against federal judges, local law enforcement oversees courthouse security in each Maryland county. There is no central record of threats.
In its statement last week, the Maryland court system said it is working with law enforcement to ensure the safety of judges, staff and visitors to the courts.
Clearly, threats exist. In 2018, the man who targeted me and murdered my five colleagues at the Capital Gazette also wanted to kill the appeals court judge who threw out his ridiculous lawsuit against the news organization.
It’s just that not every threat against a judge is a deadly peril.
In September, a Cambridge man pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of threatening to injure a public official. Maryland State Police arrested him in January after he posted videos on social media threatening two judges.
A judge decided the man didn’t present enough of a threat to keep him in jail any longer, and released him to serve five years of supervised probation.
If there is one area of the law where threats are most common, it’s family law and domestic abuse cases. That’s what the man in Cambridge was unhappy about, and over the years I’ve gotten dozens of calls from men hoping I would write about their “unfair” divorce proceedings and custody decisions.
The man suspected of killing Wilkinson was charged with domestic violence during his marriage. But his ex-wife decided not to proceed with the case. She has said he carried a gun with him always.
That allowed him to avoid a restraining order and keep his legally owned handgun, perhaps the one that the Washington County sheriff said was used to shoot Wilkinson.
When the House Judiciary Committee took up Smith’s legislation earlier this year, the discussion focused on who in government should be able to shield their home addresses, club memberships and other personal facts that could put them at risk of an attack. As often happens, no one is exactly sure why it was stranded.
“A lot of other people were calling for the same information to be withheld,” said Del. Sandy Bartlett, a committee member recently named vice chair. “So maybe that level of controversy could have been a part of it.”
That’s similar to the discussion in Georgia, which earlier this year considered a proposal to withhold personal information for everyone in government. What eventually passed was a redaction law for people in law enforcement only.
Both Smith and Del. Luke Clippinger, chair of the House committee, have reached out to leaders of Maryland’s courts to say they want to discuss the issue.
They will have to decide who should be added to the bill, and they’ll be asked to do it without much quantifiable information about threats. Many public officials are worried, but in an age of casual threats, it’s hard to decide which ones are real.
Lawmakers will have to figure out where to draw the line between protecting those most at risk and limiting the free speech of anyone who innocently shares this kind of information. They’ll have to decide what is really possible in an age where information is very hard to corral.
It’s a decision sure to invite constitutional challenges.
One name central to the discussion of who should be added to the law was Aruna Miller, the lieutenant governor. It will be again as lawmakers reckon with the consequences of a judge’s death in Western Maryland
“We have seen increased threats against public officials over recent years, and Maryland must ensure that those who keep our government running are protected from harm,” a spokesperson for Gov. Wes Moore said in a statement released Monday. “The administration supported SB 221 last session and will support future efforts to allow judges and other officials to shield their personal information from those who have ill intent.
“At the administration’s request, the lieutenant governor was included in last year’s bill, and we will advocate for her inclusion again.”