What Judges Should Know About Court-Related Violence

Vol. 53 No. 3

Judge Chuck Weller sits in the Family Division of the Second Judicial District Court in Reno, Nevada.

Eight years ago, while I stood in my chambers at the Family Court building in Reno, Nevada, a sniper shot me just above the heart from the upper level of a parking garage about 200 yards away. The shooter was a husband no longer content with battling his wife about assets and child custody in a divorce action. I wasn’t his first target that morning. Before driving to the courthouse, he stabbed his wife to death at his suburban home during an exchange of their nine-year-old daughter.

All judges are concerned about court-related violence. Following the events of that day, my interest in the subject became acute. I was surprised to find no single source from which I could learn the characteristics and the nature of courthouse violence. Part of my response was academic. I benefitted from the availability of the National Judicial College, which is located on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, a short distance from my home. The schools offer an advanced degree program and a unique opportunity for research and study related to the operation of the judiciary. I wrote a master’s degree thesis about media reporting of domestic violence1 and a doctoral dissertation about using legislation to enhance court security.2 This article summarizes what I discovered and concluded. I hope it will serve as a primer on courthouse violence by describing what is known about the phenomena as revealed in scholarly, judicial, law enforcement, and commercial studies. Judges will find some of this information troubling, and some reassuring.

Court-targeted violence is increasing in the United States. Due to the importance of the judicial system to American democracy and society, great efforts have been made to confront this violence. National standards have been developed for courthouse protection. Costly weapon-detection technologies, surveillance systems, changes in building design, and thousands of court security officers have been employed to make courts safer. These measures have proven to be insufficient. The documented incidences of violence continue to increase. Courthouse shootings, bombings, and arson attacks have doubled over the last two decades. Such violence occurs in an American courthouse at least once a month, on average. Occurrences of less extreme but still alarming violence, such as assaults, suicides, and knifings, have quintupled during the last 10 years, with such events averaging more than once per week somewhere in America.

It is useful to consider that court-related violence occurs in two varieties. Nontargeted court-related violence typically is an unplanned, spontaneous response to a courtroom situation. Examples include family-on-family violence in the courthouse or a prisoner overturning a table in reaction to a sentencing decision. Nontargeted violence is subject to control by security measures such as weapons screening, prisoner restraints, the presence of court security officers, and courthouse design that separates prisoners from the judiciary and the public.

Targeted violence is a premeditated effort to injure specific individuals, groups, or property associated with the judicial process. Examples include the planned murder of a judge, lawyer, witness, or litigant; the recordation of a false lien in order to harass a court official; and the publication of a judge’s home address with the intent to incite violence against the judge or the judge’s family. Because such attacks are planned, the planning often includes the circumvention of existing security precautions. Safeguards against targeted attacks include judicial education, home intrusion alarms, threat assessment investigations, and law enforcement response.

Perpetrators of courthouse violence cannot be limited to one or more demographic profile. They are mostly men, but of all ages, levels of educational attainment, employment histories, criminal histories, and experiences with substance abuse. They can be identified, not by their characteristics, but by their motivations.

Most targeted attacks on the judiciary are interpersonal, that is, they are attacks by a person offended by a particular judicial ruling against the judge perceived to be responsible for that ruling. Perpetrators seek justice, as they conceptualize it. They are convinced that they have been treated unfairly. Their violence is motivated by a specific sense of insult or frustration. They perceive themselves as under attack. They are angry or fearful about a specific case. One-third of targeted courthouse attacks are prompted by an intent to delay, disrupt, or influence legal proceedings. Two-thirds are motivated by a desire to take revenge. More than half of perpetrators seeking revenge intend to kill.

One-half of all court-related violence is family law related. It occurs in conjunction with cases involving divorce, alimony, child custody, child support, or domestic violence restraining orders. It is reasonable to infer that a significant portion of courthouse violence is, as was true in my case, a variant of domestic violence in which a perpetrator’s intended victims include a present or past intimate partner and a judge or other person who is perceived by the perpetrator as interfering with his control of that partner. Prisoner escape is the second most common occasion for courthouse shootings, accounting for about one-quarter of the violence.

Few judicial attackers suffer from mental illness. Nothing in the literature states or implies that perpetrators of court-targeted violence act under the influence of a mental imbalance or an irresistible impulse. They have not lost their free will or their ability to control their emotions. They act purposefully.

In the case of court-targeted violence directed toward judges, the perpetrator of violence and the judge usually are familiar with each other, as a result of having interacted in the courtroom. Judges and many of the other participants in the judicial process, such as court staff, live in the same community as the litigants who come before the court. Judges often make consequential decisions alone, rather than as part of a decision-making body like a legislature. These factors render judges more visible, susceptible, and vulnerable than other public figures.

Three-quarters of courthouse attacks involve a firearm, most commonly a handgun. In most cases the firearm is carried into the courthouse by the perpetrator. In about 15 percent of cases, the perpetrator is able to gain control of a firearm belonging to a law enforcement officer. Explosives are second to firearms in frequency of use. It is uncommon for a courthouse attacker to have accomplices. Most act alone.

More than 90 percent of attacks on state and local judges occur at the courthouse. However, the same is not true for federal judges. The last three targeted assassinations of federal judges occurred at their homes. Criminologists observe that the location where a crime will be committed can be affected by changing the perceived likelihood that a crime can be successfully perpetrated at particular places. Federal courthouses do not typically invite criminal activity because they are constructed to appear imposing and impregnable. Many state and local courthouses, on the other hand, present less formidable defenses. When court buildings are made to appear more secure, the need for protection at the homes of judges is increased. At present, constantly monitored home intrusion alarms are made available to all federal judges by taxpayers. Few state or local jurisdictions provide any home security for judges.

Forty years of record keeping show that the perpetrator is the person most likely to be killed in courthouse violence. Law enforcement officers are injured almost as often as perpetrators but are much less likely to be killed. Ex-wives and family members of the perpetrators make up the largest group of unarmed victims of courthouse violence, followed by members of the general public. Judges are not the most frequent victims of attack but, when they are, they are twice as likely to be killed as wounded. Court staff and judges’ families have also been victims, but with lesser frequency than these other categories of persons.

Costs of Courthouse Violence

Technological and personnel-intensive court security measures are expensive. Between 1998 and 2007 the average cost of security enhancements for public buildings increased from about $8.50 per square foot to over $25.00 per square foot. Following the 2005 shooting deaths of Georgia Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, his court reporter, a law enforcement deputy, and a federal customs agent by an escaped prisoner in Atlanta, the Fulton County Commission approved spending $4.5 million for long-sought security upgrades at the courthouse. Additionally, the county settled a suit brought by Judge Barnes’ widow for $5.2 million and a suit brought by the daughter of the court reporter for $5 million. Fulton County’s insurance, capped at $5 million per incident, was exhausted by the first settlement. In addition, the taxpayers of Georgia paid more than $1.8 million for the state-funded defense of the indigent prisoner responsible for the assassination.

Courthouse violence also has a psychological cost. On May 5, 1992, during a divorce proceeding at the Clayton Courthouse near St. Louis, Missouri, a husband went on a shooting rampage. In less than 10 minutes, he killed his wife; shot his own lawyer and his wife’s lawyer; shot at, but missed, the judge; and wounded three other people who happened to be in the vicinity of the courtroom. A three-year longitudinal study was conducted of the consequences of the violence for courthouse staff, law enforcement personnel, attorneys, and others who were present during the attack. Two months after the incident, almost three-quarters were suffering a wide range of psychiatric symptoms including anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and substance abuse. Some continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder three years later. A study of the judges in my judicial district following my shooting found that my colleagues had responses that could potentially interfere with judicial functioning. Almost one-half expressed recognition that their fear of violence might affect their decision making. Courthouse violence causes continuing emotional effects and substance abuse. It can lower memory capacity, interrupt decision making, and increase stereotyping in decision makers.

Threats

Most people who make threats against public persons are satisfied by that expression of outrage and do not attempt any physical approach or assault against the object of their anger.3 Most death threats and other threats of physical harm to judges are unlikely to lead to actual violence. Communicated threats lessen the probability of a successful attack by alerting the intended victim of the need to prepare. People who intend to attack desire to succeed and, accordingly, usually do not threaten. Multiple studies show little, or even a negative, correlation between communicated threats and physical attacks against public figures. It must be noted, however, that threats that do not lead to violence often have a corrosive effect on the person threatened and the judicial process. Threats are upsetting to their recipients, the people who live and work near the recipients, and the people who care about the recipients. Threats cause people to fear. Threats disrupt the normal flow of life and work and cause changes in behavior. A Pennsylvania study showed that 48 percent of that state’s judges who were threatened changed their professional conduct because of the threats. Magnetic resonance imaging shows that the receipt of a threat triggers reflexive brain responses that interfere with the ability to perform intended tasks. The brain involuntarily disengages from volitional behavior in order to allocate resources to cope with perceived danger.

More predictive of an imminent attack than a verbal threat are symbolic actions that occur in close physical proximity to the intended victim. Slashed tires, an automobile broken into, a bullet left in the victim’s bed, and a newspaper advertisement for an auction at the victim’s home are examples of activities that immediately preceded actual attacks.

Federal Courts

A good source of information on the current state of attacks on the judicial process is the U.S. Marshals Service, a law enforcement agency dedicated to protecting the federal judicial branch of government. During the first 200 years of the existence of a federal judiciary (1789–1989), four federal judges were killed. The first was murdered in 1867. The remaining three were assassinated during a single decade between 1979 and 1989.

The increase in violence against the federal judiciary may be the result of a change in the nature of federalism. The federal government, including the courts, has become increasingly involved in the lives of individual citizens. During the 18th and 19th centuries, federal courts were concerned with the regulation of states and other constitutional issues. Few cases involving the day-to-day lives of individual citizens came before federal courts. Crimes, contracts, and torts were matters to be addressed by state courts. Beginning in the 20th century, the federal government began to directly regulate the behavior of individuals.

The surge of lethal violence during the 1980s attracted significant attention. Funding dramatically increased. All federal courthouses in the United States were transformed into armed fortresses with specially deputized guards, locks, controlled entrances and exits, alarms, panic buttons, and surveillance cameras.

There are approximately 2,500 federal judges, most of whom enjoy lifetime tenure. There are about 30,000 state and local judges, most of whom are serving limited terms in office. Federal judges are protected by a dedicated law enforcement agency, the U.S. Marshals Service. Most state and local judges are protected by all-purpose local sheriff or police departments. Few state and local judges will ever have the level of protection afforded to their federal counterparts.

The Way Forward

Standard law enforcement strategies for crime prevention have some application to the courts, but they have not halted the increasing violence. My thesis suggests that because one-half of courthouse violence is family law related, the courts can enhance their security by taking an active role in educating the public about domestic violence. My dissertation proposes specific legislative enactments that should prove useful in reducing the amount of court-related violence, including reducing the benefits to the criminal of filing false liens, reducing the opportunity for crime by restricting access to identifying information, and raising the cost of crime by civil and criminal statute. I recommend both to your reading.

Studies show that most attacks against the judicial process are motivated by anger and fear resulting from specific judicial acts. Research also indicates that eliminating the participant’s perception of injustice in a decision-making process will substantially reduce the likelihood of a criminal response. There is room for substantial improvement. Surveys show almost one-half of the general public do not agree that court procedures are “always” or “usually” fair. A litigant’s perception of procedural injustice can often be moderated by using alternatives to traditional, confrontational litigation practices. Particularly in family law cases, mediation and other nonadversarial dispute-resolution techniques give litigants a greater opportunity to participate, to be heard, and to observe that an authority figure is hearing and responding to their concerns. Such processes are viewed by litigants to be more equitable than trials and, as a result, lead to greater acceptance of the decision entered by the court.

Judicial practices likely to be considered as unjust can be tempered or eliminated by judicial education that includes instruction on how to instill the perception of procedural fairness in the courtroom and in written decisions. The belief of litigants that they are being treated justly and that they are able to achieve their litigation goals can also be addressed by providing assistance in navigating the judicial process. Such assistance might include access to a law library, the operation of a self-help center for self-represented litigants, the availability of instructive materials and forms, or the appointment of counsel. In order to have the greatest impact on reducing courthouse violence, services should be focused on those participating in the types of litigation that result in the greatest level of violence.

A party’s anger at a trial court judge can be assuaged by providing a simple, quick appeal procedure for those types of cases that account for the greatest amount of courthouse violence. Mandatory participation in anger management should serve to increase the likelihood that a disgruntled litigant will select a nonviolent means of adapting to disappointment.

Postscript

About a month after I was shot I returned to the bench. I was motivated by a feeling that I had an obligation to an institution larger than myself not to permit violence to change the operation of the court. I work every day in the same chambers and see out my window the parking garage from which the sniper fired. The passage of time has lessened my emotional response to these reminders. Twice a year I teach court security to new judges at the National Judicial College, and I have been privileged to speak on the subject at meetings of judges in several states. I hope that my experience serves to make other judges safer.

Endnotes

1. Hon. Chuck Weller, Toward Improved Media Coverage of Domestic Violence: Why and How Courts and Others Should Share the News About Domestic Violence and Common Reporting Deficiencies, 2 Reynolds Cts. & Media L.J. 237 (2012).

2. Charles E. Weller, Statutory Response to Court Security Concerns (2013) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Nevada, Reno), available at http://gradworks.umi.com/36/08/3608800.html.

3. This discussion of the relationship between threats and attacks relates to specific groups of victims: public officials and celebrities. The relationship between threats and attacks is different for other groups, including victims of domestic violence.

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