Iowa courthouse break-ins were arranged by … the Iowa courts?

“This has been quite an odd case,” said one state senator.

Last month, two men were arrested for breaking into the courthouse in Dallas County, Iowa. The same men were charged with burglarizing the Polk County courthouse around the same time. Now it has come to light that they were hired by the state court administration in order to test courthouse security.

The men apparently broke into the Polk County courthouse after hours on one occasion, then had to break back in after they realized they had left some things behind. They were not caught until the third break-in in Dallas County. Last week, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady admitted that they had been hired by the court system itself, which had proceeded without notifying law enforcement or any other governmental branch.

Chief Justice Cady apologized for the snafu, and stated that the court system and the security company had “differences in interpretations” of the security company’s contract.

On federal laws and state courthouses

By now,  many readers may be familiar with the growing tensions between states and the federal government over the Trump Administration policy of arresting illegal immigrants outside (and inside) state courthouses. The issue has been brewing for some time, and came to a head in Massachusetts this week when a state court judge and court officer were themselves arrested by federal authorities for helping Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal immigrant in their courtroom on drug charges, evade imminent arrest by an ICE agent by spiriting him out the back door of the courthouse.

Yesterday, in what they maintain is merely a coincidence of timing, two Massachusetts District Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking to enjoin ICE from making any further arrests in state courthouses.

My former law school classmate Ted Folkman has an excellent rundown of the events and a sensible take on it at Letters Blogatory.  He writes:

My best understanding of the law is that the immigration agent had the right to seek to detain Medina-Perez in the courtroom and that the judge probably shouldn’t have put obstacles (or perhaps “obstructions”) in his way, though I do not want to offer an opinion about whether the judge’s conduct satisfies the elements of the criminal statutes without studying them. Again, we want to think back to another era and the contexts in which states sought to thwart federal law enforcement, and not make a legal rule based just on the sympathies of the moment. But that said, I also think it’s a terrible idea to send immigration agents to courthouses in the first place to arrest people, because it discourages people from attending court and is contrary to efforts to increase access to justice. And I find it hard to see why the federal government thinks the answer is to charge the judge criminally rather than for the Massachusetts court to exercise self-governance.

Two points here deserve elaboration. First, the federal policy is a terrible thing for the operation of state courts and their users. It represents a clear intrusion by a separate sovereign that threatens to disrupt state court proceedings. More importantly, the fear of arrest by ICE agents is sure to dissuade people from coming to court when it is necessary that they do so. The administration of justice will suffer as victims and key witnesses don’t show up for hearings and trials. Claims of domestic violence, child custody, landlord-tenant relations, personal injuries, and a variety of other issues either will not be brought at all, or will lead to default judgments when the defendants fail to appear. If the American tradition of due process means anything, it is that even those who are not citizens — even those who are not here legally — deserve a fair day in court.

At the same time, state courts and state judges are simply not free to ignore federal law and policy with which they disagree. American history is rife with examples of states unacceptably undermining federal law through the operation of their own court systems. Again, if due process means anything, it is that the law must be fairly applied in every venue, regardless of (as Ted puts it) “the sympathies of the moment.” And the charges against the Massachusetts judge, if proven, are quite damning: she allegedly closed her courtroom to the ICE agent, turned off the electronic recording system, and snuck a federal fugitive out the back door of the courthouse. Regardless of how you come down on the morality of her action, her alleged behavior was remarkably unjudicial.

Put differently — we have courts of law, not courts of justice. There are established procedures in place to stop harmful conduct. The lawsuit discussed above is one such procedure; taking the law into your own hands while wearing the robe is not. Whether or not one sympathizes with the intent of the state judge here, her alleged activities have surely damaged the integrity of the state judiciary.

 

Are more judges arming themselves in self-defense?

This story out of Toledo suggests that the answer is yes.

This trend is not entirely surprising, given the high-profile, violent attacks on judges in recent months. But it’s not at all clear whether–and how–concealed carry by judges would affect the regular work of courthouse security staff.

An interesting, and somewhat sad, development.

Convicted war criminal commits suicide in open court

Late last month, Slobodan Praljak arrived in court at the Hague to hear the final outcome of his appeal. It was not what he had hoped for. Praljak, convicted in 2013 of war crimes stemming from his role in the civil war in Bosnia, learned that his conviction and sentence would stand.

As the judgment was read, and with cameras rolling, Praljak produced a small vial of liquid and drank it in full view of the judges.  He then announced, “I just drank poison.  I am not a war criminal.  I oppose this conviction.”  The hearing was immediately postponed and Praljak was rushed to the hospital.  He died shortly thereafter.

Dutch police and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are now investigating how Praljak smuggled the poison into the courtroom.  The New York Times reports on that question, as well as Praljak’s odd behavior in the days leading up to the hearing:

Defense lawyers at the tribunal say the security arrangements in place for defendants like Mr. Praljak, and the five other men whose sentences were affirmed on Wednesday, were rigorous. They were subjected to body searches when they left their detention center — inside a high-security Dutch prison — and again when they arrived at the tribunal building. But, lawyers acknowledged, body-cavity searches were not part of the routine. And in the months before his final appearance in court, he had seemed to eschew contact with his family and his lawyers.

Nika Pinter, his lead counsel, said in a telephone interview from Zagreb, the Croatian capital, that Mr. Praljak had told his family not to be present at the judgment.

Prajlak had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, and would have been eligible for parole in just two years (accounting for time served).  Perhaps this event will reinforce the need for courthouse security to protect the parties as much as the judges and court staff.