State courts handle more than 103 million cases every year, affecting every aspect of our life. Their universal accessibility has been at the cornerstone of our understanding of the rule of law for nearly 800 years, since the Magna Carta promised that courts would be openly held in the towns and villages of England. That transparency has always required a balance between free and open access and the need to ensure that the proceedings, the litigants and court staff are safe and secure.
According to the Center for Judicial and Executive Security in St. Paul, Minn., there have been 406 court-targeted acts-of-violence incidents against courts including shootings, bombings, arson attacks and incidents of knifings, assaults, murder-for-hire and bomb plots, suicides and other violence since 2005. While this figure reflects the most current data available, it is quite certain that a relatively high number of other incidents have occurred — but were not reported or have not been documented.
What we have learned in these past years, and appears to have been borne out in the February 11 shooting in Delaware — and in another only two days later in the parking lot of a South Carolina courthouse — is the critical nature that security at the entrance plays. Stopping a potential assailant at the courthouse doors is the easiest way to minimize tragedy. Consider the case of Crawford County, Ark., in 2011, where a heavily armed individual walked unopposed into the courthouse in the small town of Van Buren, firing as he progressed. The first action after the shooting was to reduce the six entrances in the building to one. The second was to put a screening checkpoint at the remaining entryway.
Court security has traditionally rested with localities that provide sheriffs and deputies or hire personnel to secure courts. This means a reliance on presiding judges, sheriffs, court clerks and administrators, and others involved daily with courthouses. Among the "Ten Essential Elements for Court Security and Emergency Preparedness" promoted by the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators was a focus on partnerships: "Strong and effective partnerships among state courts, law enforcement, and county commissioners must be developed to ensure successful security operations." In the words of Pennsylvania State Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines, "We need to build a culture of collaboration that will create a mutually supportive network of information and assistance."
Many states have statewide court-security coordinators hired by the judiciary to help localities in this area. Others, such as Massachusetts and New York, have established their own court-security officers that are independent of local sheriffs and are specifically focused on the needs of the courts.
Although there are lessons learned, and reforms put into action, after courthouse tragedies over the past decade, many challenges remain. There is no national reporting system for state court security incidents. Although some states have created effective strategies for reporting and recording incidents, the fact remains that even the definition of an "incident" varies. Courts that are built and constructed in the future may have the latest in technologies and design features to deter attack, but many state courts are historic buildings that do not lend themselves to easy retrofitting. Moreover, a trend toward multiuse buildings presents additional challenges. For instance, perimeter security for a building with a courthouse on the third floor may be essential — but a considerable inconvenience to members of the public who are coming to pay their property taxes at a county office on the second floor. Concerns over multiuse buildings have also confronted various states and localities on the issue of possessing a weapon: Although every state is in agreement that guns should be generally banned in courtrooms, there is no such universal agreement when it comes to courthouses.
In recent years, several state legislatures have taken action to expand the list of people who are authorized to carry firearms into courthouses and courtrooms. Since 2011, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin adopted such measures. With the exception of Mississippi, whose legislation applied to private citizens, in all instances the legislation allowed certain public officials to carry weapons into a courthouse or courtroom. Many other states continue to entertain similar bills.
With the advent of courthouse security awareness, heightened security measures, refined policies and procedures, specialized training and site-specific security measures, one might expect that the number of incidents in recent years would have decreased rather than increased. As the Delaware and South Carolina incidents highlight, judges and court administrators continue to struggle with how to best protect their staff and the public.
In 2006, a year after a shooting rampage in an Atlanta courthouse left three dead, then Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears noted in her state of the judiciary address that "the incident underscored the need to improve safety and security for judges and judicial employees, both within and outside courthouses. Hard-working, decent court officials, litigants and their families should never face violent attack." The statement remains as true today as when it was spoken.
William E. Raftery is a knowledge and information services analyst at the National Center for State Courts. Timothy F. Fautsko is principal court management consultant at the center.