Security Flap

The lines to get into Maricopa County courthouses are about to get longer.

If you've ever stood in line waiting to pass through security at downtown Phoenix's county courthouse, you've surely uttered a word or two that qualifies as obscene.

It's not that the folks manning the metal detectors and rubbing their magic wand over your body aren't polite. But the lines -- especially early in the morning and after lunch -- can be brutally long and time-consuming.

Such is life in the post-September 11 era.

A judge's recent decision to eliminate security-bypass badges has some attorneys fuming.
Rand Carlson
A judge's recent decision to eliminate security-bypass badges has some attorneys fuming.

However, for respected Phoenix attorney and ex-judge David Derickson, Maricopa County presiding judge Colin Campbell's recent decision to eliminate security-bypass badges for private attorneys and other courthouse regulars is nothing less than a "bitch slap."

Campbell's pending decision will mean that only judges, certain lawyers and select employees will be allowed to avoid the crunch at the front doors of Maricopa County's courthouses. As for the handful of media regulars who had been issued bypass badges for years without incident, the judge's order reads, "these cards shall terminate by October 1, 2004."

Campbell says it's a matter of coming to grips with "the fact that, whether we like it or not, we don't live in the same world anymore. And everyone that we consulted told us that we had to change our current security system, that our system is porous."

Asked to describe specific courthouse-related security breaches, Campbell mentioned three incidents:

A mentally ill litigant who walked into the backyard of a county judge who was meeting with a Girl Scout troop (no one was injured).

A gun that authorities found taped beneath a juror's chair where inmates sit during routine court hearings. But that one happened eight years ago, according to court communication director J.W. Brown.

A call to Campbell from a top county prosecutor about a verbal threat that a lower-level line prosecutor allegedly made against a judge. The supervising prosecutor confirms he made the call to the judge, but says Campbell is blowing that situation way out of proportion.

At best (or rather, at worst), it's not terribly compelling stuff.

But, says Campbell, the Arizona Supreme Court instructed him and other presiding judges to reconsider their "disaster preparedness" in the aftermath of 9/11. Members of the U.S. Marshal's Office then did a security audit of the county courthouse complexes and, the judge says, "they definitely wanted us to cut back on our security bypasses, for one thing."

That's when things started to get sticky.

At Campbell's request, court staffers organized a Security Bypass Committee of about 30 people, including court and clerk staff, representatives from two police agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others.

According to an e-mail sent August 18 by Dave Derickson to other attorneys around the Valley, the committee members "all said that random screening of attorneys and slightly heightened background checks were enough and that everyone being screened was unworkable. The sole law enforcement naysayer is the U.S. Marshal, who believes that everyone should be screened. That works okay for federal court, which has about 200 walk-ins a day versus 10,000 for the Superior Court."

(According to courthouse security chief Bill Duffy, 115,240 visitors entered Superior Court buildings in July. Security personnel confiscated 2,606 items designated as "weapons" during that time.)

The bypass committee later met with Judge Campbell and other judges, and Derickson said the presiding judge expressed concern about the increasing number of threats against judges nationally -- especially those working in Family Court.

Derickson's e-mail continued, "My input [to Campbell] was that this [end of bypass badges] is a bitch-slap to lawyers and to those of us who counseled patience in order to 'let the system work.' . . . I said to Campbell that he should put all the [Family Court] judges in the Old Courthouse and lock it down. He looked at me like I had crapped in the punchbowl."

At the August meeting, Derickson noted, "not one person spoke in support of the [elimination of the bypass badges]. Everyone expressed, in varying degrees, their being upset at being targeted because of the conduct of a few. Some of us stated that this decision . . . is a sign of the level of disrespect judges have for lawyers."

Campbell concedes that an unspecified number of the county's 91 Superior Court judges don't agree with the pending security changes, but adds, "The Bar has had a way of looking at this issue as a matter of their own self-interest, not as a security issue. I think the same might be said of the media."

However, an informal survey of county and city courts nationwide suggests that bypass badges for licensed attorneys and working members of the media are the rule, not the exception. That includes the New York City Criminal Court, located less than a mile from Ground Zero, where everyone with the badges, including judges and media, undergoes random searches.

No one is suggesting that courthouse security isn't a valid concern. In 1994, for example, a man with no previous criminal background shot his pregnant wife to death inside the King County Courthouse in Seattle. And earlier this year, a defendant lunged at a Philadelphia city judge during a parole violation hearing. An alert sheriff's deputy shot the attacker before he reached the judge.

Some components of Campbell's controversial edict are yet to be worked out. A final draft of his seven-page missive says that "attorneys whose work-station is within the courthouse (for example, public defenders and county attorneys at the Durango juvenile courthouse, or county attorneys at the southeast courthouse) may apply for security bypass which shall have the same restrictions as employee bypass."

Those restrictions include being subject to random inspection and screening.

But it hasn't yet been sorted out if prosecutors who work in the County Administration Building just west of the West Court building (and attached by a second-floor walkway) will be allowed to carry their own bypass badges.

Judge Campbell's order, however, will allow judges to have an unfettered bypass card that allows them to avoid any further security screening.

Campbell says he's unaware of any instances of judges bringing weapons into their own courtrooms to protect themselves. But news clippings reveal numerous examples of judicial "activism" in the area of self-protection.

In July 2000, the State Bar of Texas reprimanded a district judge for trying to repair two guns on the bench during a capital murder proceeding. "Almost all the judges carry guns," the judge explained to a reporter. "I just should have kept mine under the robes instead of outside."

And U.S. District Court Judge Harvey Schlesinger told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee in 1999, "Many federal judicial officers currently carry concealed firearms because of safety concerns."

No matter, apparently, to Judge Campbell.

Phoenix criminal defense attorney Sherry Bell, who has been trying to publish an opinion piece in the Maricopa County Lawyer about the bypass issue, wrote this after attending the meeting chaired last month by Judge Campbell:

"If the bench is imbued with an overriding fear of attorneys as a source of potential danger, how can it possibly hear cases from those same attorneys with a lack of bias?"

E-mail paul.rubin@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8433.

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