January 01, 2015

The Bar Joins the Battle for Secure Courts: The SecureCourts Initiative

By Crista Hogan and Edward W. (Ned) Madeira Jr.

Friday morning, June 6, 2014, Dennis Marx was expected to appear at the courthouse in Forsyth County, Georgia. He was scheduled to enter a plea on multiple charges, including 10 drug offenses and one for possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. Mercifully, as it turns out, he didn’t have his day in court. Clothed in body armor and a gas mask, he approached the courthouse in his car, an assault rifle and grenades within reach. A deputy sheriff patrolling the perimeter spotted Marx and was nearly run over before he opened fire. Officers from the nearby jail responded, and Marx returned fire through his car’s windshield, lobbing his ample supply of smoke, tear gas, and pepper spray grenades. When the dust settled and the injuries were assessed, the deputy had two gunshot wounds to the leg and Marx was dead. A sad day at the Forsyth County Courthouse, but it could have been much worse. As Sheriff Duane Piper succinctly noted, “It was very close to a major catastrophe.” Police investigation concluded that Marx had the equipment and most likely the intention of taking hostages and control of the courthouse.

The near catastrophe averted in that Georgia courthouse is a dramatic, but not isolated, incident. Violent incidents are increasing. Two such episodes occurred in the span of three days in February 2013, one in Wilmington, Delaware, and the other in Chesterfield County, South Carolina. Christine Bedford and Olivia Weaver were two moms living hundreds of miles apart, both seeking their court’s assistance in financial support of their children. Both women were shot and killed—Weaver by the father of her child as she was leaving the courthouse after receiving her order of support and Bedford by her ex-father-in-law before she could even enter the courtroom.

Violent episodes are not just a threat to litigants and law enforcement. They affect courthouse personnel and members of the public as well. On March 9, 2012, Judge David Edwards was stabbed in the neck when he came to the assistance of Sheriff’s Deputy Polly Davin in a stairwell at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse in Washington. The assailant had come to steal his court file and was attacking the deputy when Judge Edwards intervened. Both the judge and deputy recovered from their injuries, but this incident never had to happen. The judges of Grays Harbor County voiced their security concerns, and three months before the violent confrontation in that stairwell, in a last-ditch effort to avert calamity, the judges filed suit against their county commissioners for violating the state’s constitution and breaching separation of powers by improperly interfering with court management. The lawsuit sought to overturn budget cuts and force the county to build a new courthouse, provide more administrative staff, and bolster security.

This is a small sampling of the disheartening rise in courthouse violence, a trend that diverts energy and resources from the administration of our courts and threatens access to justice in our communities. But earnest efforts to amplify and prioritize courthouse security are inevitably stymied by the reality of funding and exacerbated by the economic downturn. In the majority of our state courts, providing safe access to justice falls under the purview of the court en banc, with funding dependent on the county government. Three months before that incident in Grays Harbor County, retired Judge David Foscue gave voice to the crisis: “We know there’s a problem,” prophesied Judge Foscue. “It’s a very expensive matter to secure a courthouse.”

Yet, while the judiciary has traditionally been charged with responsibility of overseeing and implementing security, there are tens of thousands of stakeholders entering courthouses every week who are natural allies for the cause. Lawyers, as officers of the court, could and should be enlisted to help ensure safe courts alongside those to whom the duty falls officially. According to the National Center for State Court’s report Status of Court Security in State Courts: A National Perspective,

[w]hile in the final analysis courts may have ultimate responsibility for courthouse security, it is a responsibility that cannot be successfully discharged by courts alone. Courts on their own do not have the capacity or resources to address their own security needs fully. Cooperation and coordination with a host of other organizations are imperative. . . . Judicial stakeholders may also have the capacity to help courts obtain the resources needed to make court buildings more safe.

Unfortunately, though, many lawyers are oblivious to security concerns and a few are openly irritated by and resistant to screening measures. We need, then, to educate the bar to no longer take their surroundings for granted, to launch a systematic effort to help members of the bar to see themselves as the stakeholders they already are. An educated bar is more inclined to use their energy to support security procedures and less inclined to petition for ways to circumvent screening. An engaged bar can lend support, in the form of both numbers as well as powerful individual voices, to future efforts to obtain the funding necessary to make our courts as safe as they need to and should be.

SecureCourts: Engaging the Bar

Such an effort, of course, is no easy undertaking. Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. We already have the SecureCourts initiative, launched by the ABA Standing Committee on the American Judicial System (formerly the Standing Committee on Judicial Independence). The objective of SecureCourts is to advance the priorities of Resolution 106, adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in February 2014, which reads as follows:

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges all state, local, and territorial legislative bodies and governmental agencies to adopt laws and policies providing for the development and funding of adequate judicial system security protocols to promote access to the fair and impartial administration of justice and to prevent acts of violence related to the justice system.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges state, local, and territorial courts to engage in comprehensive reviews of each court’s respective judicial system security needs, to create and regularly review judicial system security protocols that fulfill those needs, and to seek the funding necessary to implement those protocols.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages the development of resources to educate those who participate in the justice system how to identify potential security threats related to the administration of justice, and how to be effective first responders in the event of an incident of violence.

In short, SecureCourts is designed to create lawyers’ awareness on the issue of courthouse security and, ideally, increase communication and collaboration between bench and bar in advancing shared priorities. Under this initiative, the bar can be trained to serve as additional eyes and ears in recognizing indicators of imminent violent and disruptive incidents, and enlisted to support and participate in court security training drills and protocols.

As a first step, the Standing Committee on the American Judicial System has created a SecureCourts presentation, available to bar associations on request. The presentation is designed as continuing legal education with options for adaptation by the hosting bar, using members of the local bench and bar to present the material. This SecureCourts presentation will be distributed to interested bars at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Houston in February 2015 and will continue to be available until July 2016. Participating bars will be asked to complete a short survey. Results of these evaluations will be used to determine needs and next steps in efforts to preserve and maintain SecureCourts.

The administration of justice is increasingly complex and chronically underfunded, and court security is but one of countless concerns. Some aspects of court security are expensive, but engaging the bar can add value without adding cost. Lawyers are present in every courtroom in the country and have a significant interest in working with the bench to protect themselves, their clients, and all who seek access to justice. Judges can engage and involve the bar and create a catalyst for positive change without adding expense. The bench and bar should work together, finding ways to encourage members to understand and support security protocols, inform themselves as to what is needed, and advocate for the funds and training necessary to keep our American courtroom safe.

The authors are members of the ABA Standing Committee on the American Judicial System and welcome your input, inquiries, and interest in SecureCourts.