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August 04, 2022

Annual 2022: Courtroom security advice as violence, threats mount

It happened in an instant.

In a Michigan courtroom in 2018, a judge was hearing testimony during the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the coach who molested scores of young gymnasts. The witness, a father of three victims, calmly asked the judge to give him one minute alone in a locked room “with this demon.” The judge gently said no: “You know that I can’t do that. That’s not how our legal system…”

But before the judge could finish, the father bolted for Nassar. Sheriffs tackled him just feet away from the defendant. The incident lasted five seconds. The father never reached Nassar

How can judges avoid chaos like that? On Friday, the American Bar Association Judicial Division will host a program at the Annual Meeting in Chicago addressing this very situation. The program, "Court Security Gambit: De-escalation Courtroom Techniques for Lawyers and Judges," will start at 1:45 p.m. CDT at the Swissotel.

Four judges and a court security expert will share practical strategies to de-escalate and avoid courtroom violence, along with security tips, situational awareness insights and ways to handle threats.

Stephanie Domitrovich, retired judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Erie County, Pennsylvania, will moderate. “Courtroom security is vital to the health and welfare of the judiciary and the people we serve and to the independence of the judiciary,” Domitrovich said.

The panelists will include:

  • Judge James Gilbert – Chief administrative law judge for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C.
  • Judge Phinia Aten – Chief judge of the Magistrate Court of Rockdale County, Georgia
  • Elizabeth Finn – Retired judge of the Glendale (Arizona) Municipal Court. She trains municipal court judges in Arizona on de-escalation techniques.
  • John Muffler – Courthouse security consultant and principal with Aequitas Global Security

The discussion will include tips on:

  • How to notice when a defendant’s behavior and demeanor change
  • How to de-escalate situations to avoid courtroom violence
  • How to improve courtroom security
  • Situational awareness
  • How to handle threats
  • How to handle audience distractions and interruptions in the courtroom

The program will include interactive audience polling questions about typical situations with security pitfalls. Panelists also will discuss courtroom situations with “negative optics” that may suggest bias by the presiding judge, could affect jurors and could prompt security threats to the judge.

The panelists also will discuss how judges can avoid appearing to disrespect defendants, which also can crate security issues. Civility and proper judicial conduct will be emphasized.

“Being observant is the key,” Muffler said. “As a judge, you can de-escalate problems before they happen.”