Tom Charron, court administrator at the Cobb County Superior Court. (Photo: Zachary D. Porter/ALM)
The death of a judge in Chicago this past week and other tragedies over the years highlight one ever-present risk for those on the bench.
Judges are generally well-protected while they’re at work, with security screening out front, locked doors between their chambers and public spaces and armed officers in the courtroom. But when they go home, most are on their own—as was Cook County Associate Circuit Judge Raymond Myles, who was gunned down in front of his Chicago home April 10 during a robbery.
Days after the Chicago slaying, the body of New York Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was found in the Hudson River. Though her death is being investigated as a likely suicide, the sudden deaths of two judges in one week has stirred concerns about judicial security that are never out-of-mind for court officials.
“The vulnerable spots are when our court officials leave the campus,” said Tom Charron, court administrator and former district attorney in Cobb County just north of Atlanta. “We look out for their safety, but there is never a foolproof way once they leave the courthouse.”
Charron has shared a bit of advice that might have saved Myles. “When our judges are going to be alone, we’ve asked them to notify us if they have someone suspicious coming to their front door so that we can alert the appropriate jurisdictions,” Charron said. “Our police have been very responsive.”
While they are at work, protection for judges varies wildly depending on the court and the location. Local judges such as the one slain in Chicago are generally guarded by their city or county’s police force. State appeals court judges are protected by state police while in court on official business.
In Florida, the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016 increased the state chief justice’s concern about protecting those who spend time in the state’s courthouses from shooters and other threats.
“Frankly, there are a number of courthouses in our state that are just not safe,” Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said at the Florida bar’s annual convention, held in Orlando just days after the shooting last year.
In Miami, repairs to the county’s civil courthouse pushed at least one court division into a building without a metal detector.
Labarga created two task forces last summer dedicated to state courthouse security and safety, one for appellate courts and one for trial courts. The groups, made up mostly of judges, are set to issue final recommendations in 2018.
In Georgia, the only judge who has a full-time security detail is the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. A State Patrol trooper stands guard over the chief day and night, serving as a driver in the evening and at lunchtime. The tradition is both a safety mandate and a benefit of the top job.
Federal judges are closely guarded by the U.S. Marshals Service, which declined to comment on any questions related to security.
Security has been a particularly sensitive subject at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit since the slaying of Eleventh Circuit Judge Robert Vance. Vance died instantly in 1989 when a package exploded at his home in a Birmingham suburb.
At the Eleventh Circuit’s most-recent conference on Mobile Bay, the judges were guarded by armed marshals on the ground, in the air and on boats. They constantly scouted the meeting venue, some leading bomb-sniffing dogs.
But the disparity between security services for federal and state judges is something of a sore spot for some behind the scenes.
Charron said the judges in the most-dangerous position could be those presiding over divorce and custody disputes—handled entirely by state courts. “I don’t know that anything is more volatile than domestic relations,” he said.
Domestic violence was a factor in a shocking 2005 Atlanta courthouse shooting. Brian Nichols killed Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes plus a court reporter and a sheriff’s deputy before escaping into the city and shooting an off-duty U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent to steal his truck. Nichols was on trial accused of raping his former fiance when he grabbed a police officer’s gun. After the shooting rampage, he broke into Ashley Smith’s apartment and stayed overnight. She kept him calm with drugs, pancakes and readings from a Christian devotional best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Ultimately she talked him into letting her go. She immediately called police, who were able to capture him without further incident.
After the Nichols shooting, courthouses around the region stepped up security. Design plans for new buildings changed dramatically—not only putting judicial chambers behind locked doors but creating more secure, locked-down entries for defendants and the police officers guarding them.
After the Nichols shooting—as after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—stepped-up security was retrofitted into older courthouses with many adding metal detectors and X-ray machines for bags.
Newer buildings are different, noted Steve Stancil, executive director of the Georgia Building Authority, who is charged with overseeing construction of a new Justice Building to house the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Much effort went into security planning in the design stage—not only for courtrooms, chambers and public screening areas, but secured parking for judges underneath the building. “We don’t want to get into the details, but yes, security is being built in,” said Stancil. “In this building, it’s not an afterthought.”
But again, when most judges go home, they go alone. As Charron put it, “Once they leave, we have no security. We have to rely on them to report to us.”
Celia Ampel contributed to this report
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