A Judge Reflects on How to Reduce Courtroom Violence

ABA e-News, November 25, 2014 | By Admin

In 2006, a man involved in a bitter divorce stabbed his wife to death, then went down to the courthouse and from 200 yards away shot Judge Chuck Weller at the Second Judicial Court in Reno, Nev.  The judge recovered and returned to work, but his experience lead him to study courtroom violence at the National Judicial College in the University of Nevada at Reno. He ended up writing his doctoral thesis on using legislation to improve court security. His story about his research ran in the summer 2014 issue of the Judges’ Journal.

Weller found that court-targeted violence is increasing, even though much money and effort have been put into addressing the issue. Federal courthouses now routinely have weapon-detection systems, surveillance systems and numerous court security officers on guard. Still, incidences of violence —including shootings, bombings and arson attacks — have doubled in the last two decades. Today, Weller writes, there is a violent incident at least once a month in a U.S. courtroom.

The incidents fall into two categories: non-targeted court-related violence, which is typically unplanned and spontaneous, such as family-on-family violence or a prisoner overturning a table in reaction to a sentence. The other category — targeted violence — is premeditated and meant to injure an individual, group or property related to the judicial process. Examples of these include the planned murder of a judge, lawyer, witness or litigant; or the publication of a judge’s home address with the intent to incite violence.

The perpetrators are predominantly men, but they vary greatly by age, education, employment and criminal background. They are easier to identify by their motivation than by their characteristics: they seek justice as they see it. Weller’s research found that one-third of targeted courtroom attacks are done in an effort to delay, disrupt or influence the proceedings. But the other two-thirds are based on revenge, and more than half of those intend to kill.

Fully half of all court-related violence occurs around family law cases involving divorce, alimony, child custody, child support or domestic violence restraining orders. Few of these attackers, according to Weller, suffer from mental illness — indeed; they act purposefully, and most act alone. Three-quarters of the attacks involve a firearm, typically a handgun brought into the courtroom by the perpetrator.

While 90 percent of attacks on state and local judges occur at the courthouse, the same is not true for federal judges — the last three targeted killings of federal judges took place at their homes. Weller found that the substantial and imposing nature of federal courthouses (as well as their security measures) makes them less conducive to violence. Thus, the impetus to strike at the judge’s home. Weller also noted that although security measures are routinely taken to protect the homes of federal judges, they rarely are for state or local judges, whose courthouses are more modest and less secure.

In the last forty years, the perpetrators of courtroom violence are the most likely to be killed in the incidents. Law enforcement officers are injured almost as frequently as the perpetrator is killed, but are less likely to be killed. Unarmed victims of the violence are usually ex-wives and family members, followed by members of the public. Judges, Weller writes, “are not the most frequent victims of attack but, when they are, they are twice as likely to be killed as wounded.”

Among its many effects, courtroom violence exacts a psychological toll on judges. Post-incident symptoms can include anxiety, difficulty concentrating and substance abuse. After Weller’s own shooting, a study of judges in his district found that one-half of them recognized that their fear of violence might affect their decision-making. For the judges, the emotional effects can include lowered memory capacity, interrupted decision-making and increased stereotyping in decision-makers.

Still, most death threats and other threats of physical harm do not lead to actual violence, since communicated threats allow the victim to prepare. However, even threats that do not lead to violence have a corrosive effect on the intended victim and the judicial process, causing fear and the triggers that result from it. More than a verbal threat, slashed tires or a broken into car are more predictive of an imminent attack.

Weller writes there are about 2,500 federal judges, most of whom have lifetime tenure, and they are protected by the U.S. Marshals Service. In contrast, the roughly 30,000 state and local judges usually serve limited times in office, and are protected by local sheriff or police departments.

Weller’s prescription for reducing courtroom violence takes into account perpetrators’ notions that the procedure has been unfair. “Research… indicates that eliminating the participant’s perception of injustice in a decision-making process will substantially reduce the likelihood of a criminal response,” Weller writes. He advocates using alternatives to traditional litigation practices, including mediation and “other nonadversarial dispute-resolution techniques” in order to give litigants a “greater opportunity to participate, to be heard and to observe that an authority figure is hearing and responding to their concerns.”

Weller also suggests giving litigants more assistance in navigating the judicial process, including access to a law library, self-help centers for self-represented litigants and access to instructive materials and forms or the appointment of counsel.