April 05, 2021 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

Marshal: Judges Have to Be Active Participants in Your Own Survival

By Hon. Richard Ginkowski, Pleasant Prairie, WI

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol complex in Washington, D.C. should be a wakeup call for judges and other public officials, according to security consultant John Muffler who served the United States Marshals Service as administrator of the National Center for Judicial Security. “A courthouse on any given day does not have anywhere near that level of security,” Muffler said, referring to the hundreds of police officers assigned to the U.S. Capitol area. 

“You have to be an active participant in your own survival,” he added.  Muffler said that judges and court staff “have to know where to go and what to do” and “can’t wait for your protector to come and get you.”

Interviewed on a special edition of ABA Judicial Division podcast Gavel Talks, Muffler emphasized that judges, court personnel and related stakeholders must be actively engaged in security planning. This involves court security committee meetings being held regularly. Judges and staff should practice “what if?” survival scenarios.

“Our kids have to practice this – what to do, where are the alternative exits – it’s the least judges can do to do this, too” Muffler added.

A critical technique is for judges and court personnel to establish “code words” to alert each other to imminent security threats. “If there’s something that doesn’t fit” – noting one Florida judge’s protocol is that if anyone asks for an “administrative recess” it means to get off the bench and get away from the courtroom. Muffler said even if judges have a secure courthouse “once you leave, you’re on your own.” He added that judges have been ambushed in parking areas and yet some courthouses still have signs advertising where judges park their cars.

A sensitive subject is whether judges should be armed and while Muffler says it’s “an individual decision” judges who decided to carry a firearm must be adequately trained, proficient and take appropriate precautions. 

“A lot of law enforcement officers are killed with their own weapons and they have training,” he said, adding that a firearm “can be turned on your pretty quick.” Muffler said court security personnel need to know when a judge is carrying a firearm and that judges who are armed must properly secure their firearm at home.

Another key to safety and survival is appropriate planning.  Muffler said court security committees need to meet regularly with all stakeholders present and engage in short-and-long range planning for which collecting information about security issues is essential. “You cannot connect the dots if you don’t collect the dots,” Muffler said.  He added that data collection can also be used to justify to “bean counters” requests for safety and security enhancements, including data security measures to guard against “ransomware attacks” that have crippled some court operations.

Muffler also said judges should recognize “workplace violence is a serious thing” and efforts made to identify and assist people who may be on the brink.  He said it’s important to “give people who are hurting some attention” because “you don’t want an active shooter.” Judges and court administrators also need to be proactive with “continuity planning” which, Muffler said, goes beyond violent incidents to include disruptions ranging from fires to power outages.

A “silver lining with the pandemic” is it taught courts how to do business remotely, Muffler said, a point echoed in another Gavel Talks by Jason Rossell, chief judge of Wisconsin’s Second Judicial District which includes Kenosha County where civil unrest following the Aug. 23, 2020 shooting of Jacob Blake, an African American man armed with a knife who was wanted on a felony warrant, by a white police officer spread to the courthouse. Although the courthouse was damaged and inaccessible for several days, Rossell said that court operations continued uninterrupted with judges and court staff operating virtually from their homes and other county buildings following online protocols developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hon. Richard Ginkowski

Hon. Richard Ginkowski