July 01, 2014

What Judges Should Know About Court-Related Violence

By Judge Chuck Weller

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.

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