Three years after the murders of a Chicago federal judge's husband and mother, and the courthouse shooting of a Georgia state judge and his court reporter, judicial security in states remains fragmented and uneven -- and the bad economy may slow planned upgrades.
The shocking 2005 murders galvanized not only the federal judiciary, but also state court judges across the country, to begin re-examining security in courthouses and the personal protection of judges.
Today, despite some rapid improvements, serious holes remain in some areas, and the economic downturn may slow planned improvements, according to information from several state courts.
In Ohio, Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis said recently that economic pressures have him "leaning" toward reassignment of deputies who provide courthouse security, rather than eliminating other patrols.
California Chief Justice Ronald George said on Dec. 16, "We need $27 million for security in the coming year," for such things as weapons screening, cameras and duress alarms.
"Some courts have been crime scenes and not refuges," he said. He pointed to the problem of old courthouses in which guards escort prisoners down the same halls as witnesses, jurors and the public. "It's an intolerable situation," he said.
But the state is in the midst of a $40 billion budget deficit crisis.
FUNDING A 'HODGEPODGE'
Judge Dwayne Steidley of Rogers County, Okla., a former state legislator, noted that "[i]n Oklahoma security funding is a hodgepodge."
Steidley told a Rotary Club meeting recently that courts need construction money so prisoners on the way to trial don't rub shoulders with the public.
"Courthouse funding is the responsibility of county commissioners," he said. Security guards are approved through the sheriff's budget and partially from court fees collected, said Steidley. "Judicial security has been a big topic at the last three judges conferences."
In addition, court security officials have discovered that there is little centralized coordination among law enforcement agencies within state jurisdictions or even among states to share threat information or track it.
The U.S. Marshals Service, which protects federal judges and investigates threats, included state and local law enforcement in judicial security training this year for the first time and graduated its first class in December, according to Daniel S. Hall, assistant chief of protective intelligence in the judicial security division.
California state law mandates that threats against judges be reported to the state Highway Patrol, which keeps records of threats against elected officials. But few local county sheriffs, who provide courthouse security, know about the requirement, according to Malcolm Franklin, senior manager of emergency response and security unit for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Franklin said the threat reports that do get to the Highway Patrol don't get shared with other local law enforcement agencies, making tracking more difficult.
Jamie Coffee, the Highway Patrol spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif., countered that the agency makes every effort to distribute threat information.
A 2005 survey of 855 California judges found 296 threats were reported, and 75 percent were against specific judges, court employees or family members, said Franklin.
New York state reported 159 threats against judges last year, 71 alone in New York City, according to David Bookstaver, spokesman for the state courts. He said court security remains a primary concern and is one of the few areas not affected by the budget squeeze.
In Florida, each of 67 counties is constitutionally obligated to fund the courts, and the state has no obligation to pay for security, according to Craig Waters, director of information for the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. If you asked the status of court security in the 67 counties, you'd probably get 67 different answers, he said. He added that the Supreme Court upgraded security after the controversial 2000 presidential election and installed blast-proof windows. But he said one of the main reasons was hurricane protection, not security. Still, in just the past few weeks, one courthouse closed due to a bomb threat, and a white-powder scare disrupted an off-site mail facility, he said.