Killing of Hagerstown judge renews push to protect Md. judges from ‘disgruntled litigants’

Officers with the Frederick County Sheriiff's Dept. SWAT Team search for suspect Pedro Argote at the former Garden State Tannery plant in Williamsport, Md. on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. Washington County Sheriff Brian Albert said authorities are “actively working” to apprehend 49-year-old Pedro Argote for the “targeted attack” of Maryland Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson. (Ric Dugan/The Frederick News-Post via AP)(AP/Ric Dugan)

Maryland State Sen. William Smith told WTOP that he’ll bring back a bill designed to protect judges in the upcoming legislative session.

Smith chairs the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee and said he expects the bill, which would shield the home addresses of the state’s judges from being posted on the internet, will be the first bill to get a vote before his committee. The bill, SB0221, passed in the Senate during the last General Assembly session but stalled in the House.

Smith said the recent killing of Washington County Judge Andrew Wilkinson has renewed calls to increase safety measures for judges. Wilkinson was found shot to death in front of his Hagerstown home Oct. 19. He had ruled against 49-year-old Pedro Argote in a custody case earlier that day.

Argote, who was named as a suspect in the judge’s killing, was found dead in a wooded area of Williamsport on Thursday morning. Washington County Sheriff Brian Albert did not comment on the cause of Argote’s death, saying that is currently under investigation.

Argote’s body was taken to the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore for an autopsy.

Smith said one of the first things he thought of when he learned that a Maryland judge had been killed outside his home last week was the testimony he heard from the Chief Justice of the Maryland Supreme Court, Matthew Fader, during a hearing in Annapolis in February.

Fader told lawmakers in Annapolis that the very nature of their jobs puts judges at risk “of personal attack from disgruntled litigants.” He referred to the protests in front of the homes of U.S. Supreme Court Justices and added, “If those addresses can be found, think of the ease of finding the home addresses of the judge who took away custody of your children or sentenced your child or fiance to prison and how upset those individuals can be.”

Fader testified in favor of the bill that would require anyone who posted a judge’s address on the internet to remove that information within 72 hours.

Speaking to WTOP on Thursday, Smith called Fader’s comments from the February hearing, “unfortunately prescient.”

“I’ve had protests outside of my house, my private residence, and so I’m keenly aware of some of the concerns” that other officials may have, said Smith. He explained that the immediacy of the impact of a judge’s ruling can escalate the risks to members of the judiciary and their families.

Smith explained he’ll reintroduce a measure similar to the bill introduced in the last legislative session.

“Something akin to this would be the address confidentiality program” that’s granted to survivors of domestic violence and people in witness protection programs, said Smith.

During the news conference where Sheriff Albert announced that Argote’s body had been found, he was asked about concerns over security for judges. He said law enforcement in Washington County “and other counties I know have changed” some of their protocols, but declined to be specific.

“I don’t want to speak on how they’re doing things, but I’m sure we’re going to have discussions in the future on how to protect the judges a little bit better,” he said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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