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A son sacrificed his life for his parents — and all of us

A son sacrificed his life for his parents — and all of us
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Memorial Day, when we celebrate the lives of service members who have been killed while fulfilling their oaths to “preserve, protect and defend” the United States Constitution, should have a wider scope this year. In addition to honoring the fallen members of America’s military, we should also pause to honor the memory of a 20-year-old college student who, no less than our active duty soldiers, died defending America’s constitutional order. 

In all likelihood, of course, such a lofty purpose was not on Daniel Anderl’s mind when the doorbell rang in his suburban New Jersey home on July 19, 2020. He had been in the basement, helping his mom, Esther Salas, whose day job since 2010 has been as a United States District Court judge, to clean up from his 20th birthday party. During the pandemic lockdown, the family was, like millions of others, having packages delivered to their home regularly. “What I think happened,” she recalled later, “is our defenses were lower with what was happening around us. I mean, I was ordering packages every day.”   

When the doorbell rang, “before I could say anything, he shot up the stairs. And then I heard my husband go, ‘No!’ And then I heard several loud bangs.”       

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She raced upstairs to find her son shot in the chest and her husband, shot three times, urging her to call 911. Daniel was pronounced dead at the hospital; her husband, Mark Anderl, was severely wounded and has endured 20 surgeries, but continues to recover. “It wasn’t even a question what [Daniel] would do,” Judge Salas has stated, of the struggle at the front door. “He was going to protect his dad. He was going to protect me.”   

Daniel was protecting a lot more than his parents by taking a bullet to his chest that evening. His assailant, a disaffected attorney who arrived disguised as a Federal Express driver, had marked Judge Salas for assassination. Unhappy with the progress of a case he had before Judge Salas, he had become obsessed with her, compiling an extensive dossier from open source material on the internet, noting her home address, where the family went to church, and the routes she normally took to the courthouse, among other information. His intention in murdering a federal judge was to subvert our constitutional order. When his attempt failed, he shot himself. Daniel, in protecting his mother and father, was in fact protecting our commitment to the rule of law. In protecting his parents, he was protecting us all.   

Federal judges occupy a unique niche in our constitutional scheme. Once confirmed, they are given life tenure, so that their exercise of independent legal judgment is assured. In addition, the Constitution insulates federal judges from retaliation by the legislative or executive branches of government, prohibiting the other branches from punishing judges by reducing their salaries. As Alexander Hamilton put it in The Federalist No. 78, “The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution.”    

Those measures to assure the security and independence of judges are inadequate in the age of Google Maps and consumer surveillance via social media and the internet. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, threats against judges and other protectees have skyrocketed from 1,000 in 2015 to over 4,000 last year. In 2013, a sniper who had obtained the personal information of a Florida judge online for $2 shot at him in his home and narrowly missed. As anger builds across party lines and the country’s polarization becomes more extreme, the federal judges called to adjudicate our disputes become more vulnerable to the extremists among us. 

In a powerful recent address to the Class of 2021 at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Judge Salas used the example of her own tragic ordeal to inspire the young graduates not to allow the difficulties they confront to deter them. “When evil came to my door and took the dearest thing in the world to me, and nearly my partner of 29 years, I had a choice to make. Was I going to curl up in a little ball, or fight like heck to make the most of the days I have left on earth? I chose the latter because my son, in defending his family, sacrificed his life for his father and me.” That sacrifice has energized her to advocate for the passage of federal legislation improving judicial security and to continue her service to the nation as a federal judge.  

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Among the assaults on our democracy in the past year, from skirmishes in foreign lands to foreign interference in our political process to the vandalism and occupation of our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, none was more threatening to our commitment to the Constitution than the attempted assassination of Judge Esther Salas last July. Her son Daniel’s heroic sacrifice deserves to be recognized and remembered alongside the sacrifices of others this Memorial Day.  The light of his life will shine in each of the future decisions his mother is alive to deliver, and, one hopes, in the imminent passage of legislation improving the security of his mother and other federal judges and their families. 

In a difficult year, a year in which, as the song goes, “all gave some,” Daniel Anderl gave all. We should all salute his memory.    

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.