Swamp Water Jurisprudence: Judges toting gavels and guns


by Judge Dennis Challeen

Last August a judge in Steubenville, Ohio, was shot outside his courthouse in an “ambush attack.” The judge and a probation officer, both armed, returned fire and killed the attacker. “This individual laid in wait for our judge … this was an ambush and an attempted murder on our judge,” said the county sheriff. The shooter, who had a criminal history, was the father of a teenage boy who had been found delinquent as part of a rape case a few years earlier. What is puzzling about this case is the judge who was shot had nothing to do with the rape case; it was handled by a visiting judge from another area. The wounded judge was taken to surgery and survived. The sheriff had previously advised the judge, “With all the nuts running around, I encouraged him to get a weapon and he did.” He added, concerning the ambusher, “Thank God he’s not that good a shot.”

The shooting of a judge is a newsworthy but rare event. They are protected in courtrooms by metal detectors and armed bailiffs. It’s outside the courthouse where the danger arises.

The National Judicial College did an email survey of its alumni asking whether they carried a gun. Twenty-six percent of the judges answered in the affirmative. This is comparable to the PEW Research study showing that 30 percent of Americans own a gun; the majority of judges didn’t carry a gun, for various reasons. Common reasons are that they could be shooting it out with bad guys, with innocent people in the way, which brings judges down to the same moral level as the criminals with whom they deal. Also, “the responsibilities and precautions for carrying a gun far outweigh the possibility of the one-in-a-million chance someone will shoot you.” There are many other risks judges take every day that far outweigh gun violence (e.g., riding in cars, hunting, jogging in streets).

I have a friend who was a judge on the Dade County Bench (Miami, Fla.) where there were a considerable number of drug dealers hailed into court. He found that most of the judges carried a gun under their robe, as well as outside the courthouse. He refused to do so and ultimately resigned. He said they didn’t pay him enough to have to live that kind of life.

In my over four decades of being an active and reserve judge, I received six threats upon my life; three in the mail and three by phone. It is unnerving to be threatened, and of course, that is the result the threatening person wants to achieve.

When I was a new judge I discussed a telephone threat with an older, more experienced judge who was about to retire. He said it’s not the ones who notify you that are the danger; they are just playing cowardly mind games. He always felt that if you dealt with offenders in a fair way, most will respond with understanding of the sentence the judge imposes. It’s when judges hand down mean, harsh sentences, that problems of revenge may be created.

The old fox told me about a threatening telephone call to his home, when he told the caller that he recognized his voice and if harm came to him, “You’ll be the first to answer to the police and you better hope someone else doesn’t harm me either because you will be prime suspect.” The caller immediately hung up. He grinned and said he had no idea who it was, but the caller didn’t know whether his reply was the truth either. He added, “If that guy wants to play mind games, I’ll play them back.”

I attended a presentation by a U.S. Marshal about whether judges should carry a gun. He didn’t recommend one way or the other, but offered the following advice if we chose to be armed:

Practice shooting with local law enforcement agencies at their shooting range. Make sure you keep a gun safe at home to reduce accidental discharging around children. Be aware of higher risk areas such as courthouse parking lots and outside your residence. Finally, remember a gun can offer a false sense of security. The “bad guy” knows what he is up to, while the victim does not; surprise is always on the side of the perpetrator. Anyone who carries a gun should be aware of a 2008 RAND Corporation study “evaluating the New York Police Department’s firearm training; the average hit rate during gunfights was just 18 percent. When suspects did not return fire, police officers hit their targets 30 percent of the time.

“The data show what any police officer who has ever been involved in a shooting can tell you — firing accurately in a stressful situation is extremely hard.

“Amid this chaos, police officers have to make difficult, split-second decisions; humans can lose motor skills as the body reverts to basic fight-or-flight instincts.”

And these are professionals well trained to use guns, not a bunch of amateurs. So what was the advice that all people, armed or not, should follow: get a dog that “barks with authority.”


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