A Safer Judiciary
by Daynel L. Hooker
When I clerked for Judges Wiley Daniel and John Coffey, the last thing on my mind was safety. I was much more concerned about the quality of my work. When I read about the murder of the husband and mother of U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow, I was shocked, and said a quick prayer for the safety of the families and clerks of the judges I had worked for.
Later, after watching the reports of the shooting of Atlanta Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, I wondered if the same thing could have happened to the judges I worked for, or their families.
In our profession, we treat judges with a certain reverence and view them with awe reserved for those who have achieved the highest honors in the practice of law. As a result, I believe we sometimes fail to remember they are human and have the same concerns we do about issues, including judicial safety. Here’s what a few judges had to say:
"It was a very shocking and a deplorable act of violence," U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Y. Daniel said of the Lefkow tragedy.
"Judges have a fundamental obligation to do justice and to ensure due process for litigants. So long as security measures do not detract from these goals, I don’t mind additional security in the courthouse for the protection of everyone. One of the key considerations is to treat all persons who interact with the courts with respect."
Since 1970, 10 state and federal judges have been murdered; seven of the killings have been job-related. In his 10 years on the bench, Judge Daniel said neither he, nor his family and staff, have been the target of job-related threats. That, however, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have concerns about safety.
"Security for federal judges is provided by the U.S. Marshal’s Service. I believe the U.S. Marshal and his deputies are competent and work hard. However, I think it’s imperative that Congress provide adequate funding for the U.S. Marshal."
Judge Alfred Harrell, a member of the Colorado judiciary for 19 years, has been threatened by litigants three times. Once, the local police chief warned him of a credible threat and advised him to carry a gun, which he did for a few days.
"I personally believe that if you’re a target, all the additional security in the world will not dissuade a person. I didn’t feel any safer, so I discontinued. It’s not that you don’t take these things seriously. If people are going to do these things, they aren’t going to telegraph it."
He continued: "In the grocery store and the department stores and just around town I see hundreds of people — many of whom I have actually sentenced — who have been before me in court. When they come up to me, I always ask, ‘Did I treat you fairly?’ and I’ve never had a person say that I didn’t. I treat people with respect and dignity because they’re entitled to it, so I don’t spend my life looking over my shoulder. I’ve never had an incident, which leads me to believe that most people respect authority and operate within the parameters of that authority, but you can’t predict when someone is going to take exception to what you do or say."
While federal courts have marshals protecting members of the federal judiciary, other local judges have less security. As an Administrative Law Judge, Edward Felter’s office is in a private building that lacks metal detector gates, making him more vulnerable than state and federal judges who are almost always housed in public office buildings.
"The problem is that you always worry about the unknown threat," said Felter. "There are some nuts who, no matter what you do, you’re the enemy. All the security in the world can’t stop someone who’s determined, as evidenced in the Atlanta killing. But the bottom line is that the courts, the tribunal, belong to the people."
Judge Felter has been threatened by a litigant. Some 20 years ago, he was on a death list of Dalton L. Williams, a convicted armed robber who escaped from a Colorado jail and targeted select persons. Felter said it was one of the scariest times in his legal career. For five horrific days, he was armed and his family was guarded by the Fort Collins deputy sheriffs. Over the years, Felter has attended safety courses taught by security experts to fulfill continuing legal education requirements. As a result, he’s gathered some information and offers the following advice and warning to both attorneys and judges.
"The best medicine is common sense. Be extra careful leaving the building, if you’ve had a volatile litigant in court. Keep a low profile, an unlisted phone number, no marked parking spaces and no personalized license plates. But no one is safe if there’s an intent nut."
Judge Daniel also offered the following advice: "Lawyers should be concerned about how they treat clients and be aware of clients who appear disgruntled. We all need to keep reasonable security at the forefront of the way we do business, rather than just when specific incidents cause headlines."
Daynel L. Hooker is an associate in the Denver office of Durrani Law Firm. You can reach her at Daynel@durrani.com.