This week, members of the Idaho Supreme Court issued a statement claiming that they, their families, and their employees have been targeted with threats and harrassment: “when disagreement becomes personal, to the point of threats against personal safety and security … a line has been crossed.” Threats of violence are now commonplace for many state and federal judges. And all too frequently, real violence erupts with tragic consequences.
Congress passed legislation last year that would increase security for federal judges. And now a Republican legislator is proposing a bill that would make it easier for federal judges to arm themselves on their way in and out of the courthouse.
It’s a difficult policy question as to whether the security of judges and their families is enhanced by easing their own access to firearms. But plainly more needs to be done to build confidence that those in the judiciary are safe from threats of violence and harassment simply for doing their jobs.
In the wake of the horrific shooting of Judge Esther Salas’s son and husband at her New Jersey home last month, the Judicial Conference of the United States has resolved to seek aggressive legislation and funding to better protect federal judges and their families. The Judicial Conference’s press release, which lays out its proposals, is here.
Let’s hope that Congress acts quickly to provide the necessary resources.
A remarkable story from Chehalis, Washington. Judge R.W. Buzzard was completing a criminal hearing when two defendants–handcuffed and wearing prison garb–decided to turn and flee the courtroom. They ran down a stairwell and attempted to escape the building. Courtroom video shows Judge Buzzard leap from the bench, pull off his robe, and give chase. Near the bottom of the stairwell, he apprehends one of the defendants (the other was caught a few blocks away).
The courthouse video is here.
The incident raises obvious questions about courthouse security:
“These things don’t happen very often,” said Sheriff Rob Snaza. “They’re few and far between.”
Snaza said this represents the second such incident within the last couple of years, that he’s aware of. There are monthly meetings to discuss courthouse security issues.
During this incident, Snaza said, security measures and quick communication made deputies aware of the incident quickly. The only deputy in the room did not give chase because he had two other inmates in his care, said Snaza.
A Louisiana state judge has publicly stated that she and her colleagues “do not feel secure” in the New Orleans criminal courthouse, citing a dwindling police presence and lax security measures at courthouse entrances.
Previously, at least three unarmed deputies usually were in place to supervise significant numbers of inmates, keep order over audiences and issue subpoenas upon judges’ orders. Recently there have been only two per courtroom, or on rare occasions one.
Officers of the court — such as attorneys and clerk staff — also generally are waved through metal detectors at the court’s two public entrances without being subjected to a search of their person or belongings. [Judge] Flemings-Davillier said that, too, needs to change.
“We are asking the sheriff’s office to reinforce the rules that we already have,” she said, “because they have been lax and we have had some security issues.”
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has stated that it is unaware of any specific threats or incidents that should make courthouse personnel uneasy.
Yesterday morning, Judge Joseph Bruzzese of the Jefferson County (Ohio) Court of Common Pleas was shot in the chest at near point-blank range as he prepared to enter the courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio. Judge Bruzzese was rushed by helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital, and it appears that he will survive. Remarkably, the judge was armed and returned fire. A local probation officer was also at the scene and also fired at the perpetrator, who was killed. Authorities surmise that had the probation officer not been present, the suspect would have continued firing until Judge Bruzzese was dead.
The suspect was identified as Nathaniel Richmond, whose son was convicted in the same court for raping a 16-year-old girl in 2012. But the motivation for the shooting is unclear. Judge Bruzzese apparently had nothing at all to do with the younger Richmond’s case, although he is overseeing a separate case in which the elder Richmond is the plaintiff.
A sad and strange story, which could have been much worse if not for some quick thinking by the probation officer. Wishing Judge Bruzzese a speedy and full recovery.
In June, a reporter in the Syracuse, New York area was briefly handcuffed by courthouse security after he took pictures of individuals involved in a hallway altercation. The court had generally prohibited photographing and video recording activities in court hallways, but made an exception for the media.
The reporter was freed after a few minutes and not charged, but court administrators are now requiring all security officers in the six-county area to undergo training on working with journalists as well as proper arrest procedure. This appears to have been an isolated incident, but it is good to see the court system acknowledging the problem and working proactively with its officers to maintain the proper balance between security and transparency.
The New Jersey legislature will consider bills to prohibit publishing or posting the home addresses and phone numbers of state judges and prosecutors. Violating the prohibition would carry a potential 18-month prison sentence and a fine of $10,000. The bill also contemplates civil penalties.
The proposal comes amid increased awareness of direct threats to the judiciary. Just yesterday, a Florida man was arrested on multiple counts of threatening and stalking judges in Broward County. And the Texas legislature recently passed bills to beef up courthouse security and designate attacks on judges as hate crimes.
This is one of those stories that makes you wince:
Courthouse officials are using a weekend arrest in a bomb threat case to warn others not to make the same mistake.
Spartanburg County [South Carolina] Clerk of Court Hope Blackley said people sometimes will attempt to get out of their court hearings by calling in bomb threats to the courthouse, forcing the building to evacuate and shut down operations.
Such actions add to the burden on an already strained judicial system and can inconvenience hundreds of other people who have rearranged their schedules to accommodate a court appearance.
“It’s a costly, logistical nightmare first and foremost, and taxpayer dollars are being wasted,” Blackley said. “The court docket is already backed up. We need every minute we can to have court be operable. It’s a huge injustice for folks who want and need their cases to be heard.”
The courthouse can be a difficult place for many people, and it is understandable why some would feel reluctant to enter that space After all, issues affecting personal liberty, property, and relationships are determined there on a daily basis. But that is no excuse for terrifying and disrupting the lives of hundreds of other people. My goodness.
The New York Law Journal reports that each court in the state will receive an overdose prevention kit containing naloxone (Narcan) and other related medical materials. Court personnel will receive formal training in the use of the kits as well.
This is a forward-looking and sensible response to the national opioid crisis, and a good example of courts taking seriously their role as forums that serve all members of the community.