WASHINGTON – State judges and their staff, feeling vulnerable because of patchwork protections in courtrooms, are leading a national review of security measures to keep the judiciary safe from attack.
"Judges and jurors cannot pursue truth if they or their families are threatened," said Mary McQueen, the center's president. She said that because of security risks, courts are facing increasing challenges in persuading people to serve on juries and witnesses are coming to court intimidated.
Last month, the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow (search) were killed at her Chicago home. Last week in Georgia, Fulton Country Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes (search) was one of three people killed in a shooting at an Atlanta courthouse.
McQueen said the center will sponsor a meeting next month that will bring together court officials to study security shortcomings at local, state and federal courthouses and discuss solutions.
State judges are echoing calls from their federal brethren to strengthen security. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) on Tuesday ordered a security review after the Judicial Conference of the United States (search), representing the federal judiciary, asked the Justice Department and the U.S. Marshals Service (search) to come up with ways to improve security, particularly at judges' homes.
In some sense, state and local judges feel even more at risk because they lack the equivalent of the federal Marshal Service to protect them and because standards of protection vary dramatically from one jurisdiction to another.
McQueen surveyed state courts this week and was told of at least 15 current threats to judges or their family members. She would not provide details but said they ranged from death threats to intimidating phone calls and e-mails. She said a state court judge is under around-the-clock protection.
"Because everybody's so busy with the daily work of the court, sometimes it creates a false sense of security," she said.
The review will look at many aspects of safety in state and local courts, including security-conscious designs for new courthouses, staff training for security equipment, emergency preparedness and common standards for protecting judges and others.
There are roughly 16,000 state courts in the country.