Contempt of Court
By Andrea Todd
Posted on October 12, 2006
Photography by BruceBrown.com
Thomas Cecil was headed out for a typical day at work when, approaching his car, he noticed some wires hanging between the front tires.
Now, whether the rest of us would have even noticed such a thing is arguable. But even if we had, such an observation probably would have resulted in a call to our mechanic the following day.
From his cell phone, in his driveway, Cecil called the bomb squad.
Just weeks before, the Sacramento superior court judge had handed down a stiff ruling in a highly controversial case—well, who’s kidding who . . . by that time in his 30-year legal career, the Sacramento superior court judge had handed down a lot of stiff rulings in a lot of controversial cases, including one involving arraignment of the Unabomber and another the prosecution of a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Worried that the loose wires might be the sloppy work of an unhappy litigant (make that an extremely unhappy litigant), Cecil thought it might be a good idea to have an explosives expert come out and take a look.
Court-related violence became the topic du jour earlier this year, when, on Feb. 28, a disgruntled plaintiff whose malpractice suit had been dismissed broke into the Chicago home of the judge who had handed down the ruling and shot her husband and mother execution-style. Just days later, on March 11, a rape defendant in Atlanta grabbed a gun while being escorted into court and shot and killed a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and—the presumed target of the tirade—the judge who was presiding over his case.
The back-to-back killings prompted immediate increased security in courthouses nationwide and serious discussions about what more can be done to make our courts and courtrooms safe. But the truth is, court-related violence is an on-the-job daily occurrence, and judges have never really been safe.
Before he was a judge, Thomas Cecil was an attorney. Whether he has made more enemies in his career on the bench than he managed to while prosecuting cases before it, he can’t really say. The loose wire hanging from his car turned out to be just that—but Cecil does not feel he overreacted by any means. He is matter-of-fact but cold-stone serious about the dangers judges face. “Truthfully, of the 200-some-odd criminal defendants I would commonly have before me in my courtroom each week, it would have been hard to narrow down who disliked me the most.”
Still, some make quite an impression.
“There was one defendant, a non-U.S. citizen, who made a very dramatic threat in a thick accent that both of us would have blood on our hands, that one of us was going to die.”
Upon hearing that, Cecil took extra precautions all around. His children’s teachers and principals were quickly informed of the threat and told what to do if anything suspicious occurred. The entire Cecil family was on something of an orange alert—as much as a family can be, anyway. “You have to go to work, go about your life. It’s part of the job,” says Cecil. “But it’s always in the back of your mind.”
Was the threat ever acted upon? Did extra security measures foil an execution plot against the judge and his family? No one knows. But Cecil was unable to put the whole thing out of his mind until the defendant did in fact die. “Years later, when the attorney who represented the man told me he had died in prison of cancer, I was happy to hear it.”
It’s not just defendants who get upset. It’s their families. Their friends. Their fellow gang members. Sometimes even their victims, says Cecil.
“Every judge has been ‘mad-dogged’ at one time or another—a stare that tells you they’d like to see you dead or burn in hell. Just a few years ago, I was mad-dogged by a victim who didn’t think the sentence I handed down was severe enough.”
In that particular case, the victim became confrontational in the courtroom and got in a fight with the defendant—the man just convicted of attacking him—in the hall right outside the courtroom, Cecil remembers.
On two occasions, there have been intruders at Cecil’s home. Whether either of these incidents was the result of a court decision he has no idea; no one was apprehended. But he is quick to praise local law enforcement’s response. “The speed with which they responded on each occasion was amazing. Within minutes, they arrived.”
When evaluating a threat, Cecil says that he, like most judges, is careful to balance proper precaution with a realistic understanding that a certain level of risk comes with the job.
“When you think about the thousands of those involved with judiciating the thousands of cases in the U.S. daily, these are very isolated cases,” says Cecil. “There are wackos out there. If you could predict when one might snap, you wouldn’t have a security problem.”
As for security problems, Cecil is all for a proactive approach. “We (superior court judges) attend the California Judicial College training program in Monterey. Currently, no part of that program specifically addresses security, courtroom or otherwise. In the wake of your phone call, I’ve made a push for one.”
A judge is deemed worthy of an awesome social responsibility. The appointment is an honorable thing, an enormous accomplishment, one that should be celebrated. In light of recent events, will the families of judges—and judges themselves—be reluctant to take on these responsibilities?
“I think they’ll probably be thinking a lot more about it,” says Cecil.
Ronald Tochterman spent 12 years as a deputy district attorney in Sacramento before becoming a judge for 20. This February, he and his wife came home from an early spring vacation to find a bag of Chinese takeout and a letter requesting a favorable ruling from one of his defendants. “I took it as a low-level bribe,” Tochterman recalls. He did not eat the food, nor did he have it tested for poison. He just threw it out. Still, he points out, there was cause for concern: “As [the defendant] was on trial for arson, I wasn’t too happy that she had found out where I lived.”
In his nearly two decades on the bench, he has tried Crips and Bloods gang members and Hell’s Angels, and ruled in family court and domestic violence cases. The only serious, direct threat Tochterman says he ever has received was from a kiwi fruit farmer. After Tochterman ordered the farmer to pay taxes to the state, thus ruling against him, the farmer threatened to kill him—and was charged with threatening to harm a public official.
“A kiwi farmer! It just goes to show you that there is real potential for something like what happened in Chicago to happen anywhere; that those individuals you may not suspect may be the ones who are the most dangerous,” Tochterman says.
He admits that most “in the biz” expect this from certain courts—ones fraught with emotion, such as family and divorce court. But, he adds, small claims court and even traffic court are notorious as places where litigants get “very worked up.” “Bailiffs are often breaking up scuffles; threats are commonplace.”
Directly outside his own courtroom, says Tochterman, opposing parties are forced to sit beside each other in the hallway, and the presiding judge must pass by those who have brought the case to court—those he will be ruling against.
“I’m sure, after these shootings, you’ll see two bailiffs in every courtroom for a bit,” says Tochterman, “Before these incidents occurred, it was a big deal to get two bailiffs.” Two bailiffs versus one can mean all the difference, says Tochterman, because “it’s hard for one bailiff to watch an entire courtroom.”
Not just at work, but at home, in schools and libraries, even outdoors in public, while judges and their families circulate within their communities—as society and their positions within it requires, one judge points out—they must maintain some safe distance, and remain on some level of alert.
“It’s an issue we struggle with every year, an issue because there needs to be a balance,” says James Mize, a Sacramento superior court judge and president of the California Judges Association. “Judges are supposed to be part of the community, not separate and apart from it—active in social and church groups, with kids in public and private schools, whatever. You don’t want them to be invisible.” Still, in order to avoid intimidation and to provide protection, he says, public access to judges must be curtailed.
Judges agree that there are two consistent problems with courthouse security. One, says Cecil, is the perpetual lack of funds, which translates into a lack of armed deputy sheriffs and a lack of expensive high-tech security measures. The other is that most of the courthouses are in old buildings, without the layout or resources for some of the latest security methods. For example, newer courts—such as the new William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse on Power Inn Road or the new B.T. Collins Juvenile Center on Kiefer Boulevard—have newer security systems in place; older downtown courthouses use older technology.
Superior Court Judge Emily Vasquez holds court in an older building that takes up the block on Ninth Street between G and H. After hours on a Wednesday afternoon, the door to her courtroom is open. Her clerk, Ester Gonzales, sits in the front office, but it is Vasquez herself who greets me and leads me back to her chambers. At the back of the airy room, a door is open to a corridor. Vasquez explains that inmates are escorted into court via this corridor. “The escorts are not armed. It is a little disconcerting,” she admits.
“There should be some design improvements when a new courthouse gets built for us; most courthouses are old,” says Vasquez. “Security and safety have always been and will always be a concern. Given the tragic events in Atlanta and Chicago, it’s so important that we learn from them.”
Vasquez is quick to point out that despite the risk, the public must have access to our nation’s courthouses. “They [courthouses] are public buildings. It’s important that there is open access. Justice mandates this, but also that courts be safe and secure for all the public, not just the judges—for the clerks, the attorneys, the litigants, the spectators, reporters, everyone. We must guard the whole institution. Threats of any kind diminish the integrity and efficiency of our justice system,” she says.
In her four years on the bench, Vasquez says she has never been threatened by anyone in her courtroom. She has not even been subjected to hostile comments of a racial or gender-based nature. “If anyone in my courtroom has said anything along those lines, it was muttered under the breath, and I didn’t hear it.” She does recall an incident when, during sentencing, one defendant became extremely emotional and the victim’s family became extremely emotional. “My bailiff called in for support and within moments, six deputy sheriffs arrived,” she recalls.
“There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of emotional outbursts, but we need to prepare for them, stop that from escalating to a tragic level.”
“Judges preside over difficult cases, and someone always loses,” she says. “The nature of the court system is that you have two opposing sides. In every case, one side is always unhappy. We need to prepare for that. Some cases are more prone to violent outbursts—child custody, serious criminal cases, domestic violence and divorce. All courthouses—civil and traffic, family law—all of them need to be safe and secure.”
Vasquez reports that as a result of the recent incidents in Chicago and Atlanta, judges are re-evaluating security. “Last week at an executive county meeting, it was discussed, and it was announced that we’re going to have 10 more deputies.”
She believes the families of judges, more than anyone else, will be relieved to hear this: Vasquez has been married 20 years and has two children, teenagers who, after reports of the shootings hit the news, called immediately to inquire about what security measures were in place where she works.
Her response? Vasquez seems to believe she’s fairly safe: “They do a good job here in terms of security with what resources we have. There are metal detectors, X-ray machines at both entrances, always two or three officers at every station during peak hours. There is a secure elevator for transfer of inmates from jail to courthouse. There are panic buttons and cameras throughout, doors that are wired and alarmed.” Vasquez adds that delays in trials do occur if and when sufficient security—specifically armed bailiffs—is not available. Make no mistake, she insists: “In order to avoid risk, a trial will be delayed.”
At the judicial college in Reno, most of the judges Robin Wosje meets report on-the-job experience unlike Vasquez’s:
“The judges who I meet, they’re more likely to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I get threats all the time,’” says the assistant academic director with National Judicial College in Reno, who develops the curriculum of a program that’s meant to orient judges new to the bench.
According to Wosje, courthouse security varies from state to state. “My take on it is that it’s worse at the state judicial level where there’s much more activity; federal courthouses tend to be a little quieter,” says Wosje, adding that judges in rural area systems, at both the federal and state level, are not as safe as those in urban environments. “Many assume small-town judges are safer than those in cities like New York or San Francisco. They’re not,” Wosje says.
At the judicial college in Reno, judges are recommended to adopt safety measures—bulletproof material in your bench, for example. Specialists from the U.S. Marshals office also will come into a judge’s courtroom, take a look and make suggestions, particularly evaluating the entrypoints and paths of movement for inmates and the public. Perhaps in direct response to the shootings in Atlanta, judges may start requiring inmates to wear a shock system that goes around the waist—as a solution to the plain-clothes/no-shackles courtroom policy. “Judges agree that you don’t want to give a perception of guilt to a person that is presumed innocent with prison garb,” says Wosje. The shock belt would be used as concealed protection, making the defendant look like any other person in the courtroom.
One of the incidents that so rattled the judicial community was the shootings in Chicago—in a judge’s home. A litigant, whose malpractice case the judge had dismissed, broke into the judge’s home and shot her husband and mother, execution-style. (He later confessed to doing so in a suicide note.)
“I see judges with vanity plates on their cars and their boats, advertising who they are, what they do,” says Cecil incredulously. “I have no idea why they do it. It’s stupid.”
Cecil says having an unlisted number is just the beginning. He is very careful about providing access to his home address. He has most of his correspondence come to his place of work instead of his home, and when his children were school age, administrators were made aware that their home address was not under any circumstance to be given out.
One federal judge’s wife, who asked not to be identified, has their children enrolled in school under her maiden name, for safety’s sake, she says. “We have to be extremely careful. My children were made aware of the potential for danger, how especially cautious they need to be, at a very young age.”
“Every judge does something with this danger in mind,” says Mize, from refusing to list phone numbers to carrying concealed weapons. Two state bills passed this year (SB506 and AB1595) will make it harder to get information on judges as a result of the perception that they need more privacy and protection, Mize admits.
Federal judges can seek protection from the U.S. Marshals Service. Right now, about 1,900 deputy U.S. marshals provide security for federal judges, and investigate more than 700 threats every year. (Of those 700, approximately 20 are deemed serious enough to require protective detail, and a dozen are threatening enough to require 24-hour security for judges and their families.) President George Bush’s 2006 budget requests more than $7 million for 65 new deputy marshals.
Sgt. Robert Davis, spokesperson for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, says it’s true that some judges in Sacramento employ private security after receiving an especially ominous threat. “We provide security until they get it,” says Davis, whose department also provides security for state and federal judges when they attend work-related functions—in other words, when many of them plan to gather in one room.
The Atlanta and Chicago shootings point to a perhaps-larger issue our judiciary system must address, says Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, an organization that represents, in Dacus’ words, “people who get the short end of the stick routinely,” and have much more at stake when they do finally have their day in court—more at stake emotionally, psychologically and economically. They are the ones, Dacus says, most likely to go off the deep end when their struggle for justice ends in an unfavorable ruling.
“Our courts are a basic tool, engaged in very issue-related litigation: marriage, religious freedom, family law—material more subject to emotional response, a likely launch pad to trigger someone who, feeling
disenfranchised, might take the law into their own hands and feel justified for doing so,” says Dacus.
He cites as an example the Terri Schiavo case, which replaced the Atlanta shooting as CNN headliner news within days and added heat to the running commentary on our judicial system’s role in our society. Two weeks after the young woman died, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay often and very publicly criticized federal judges who ruled on that case—calling them “increasingly activist and isolated . . . from the American people.”
“The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior,” said DeLay.
The Republican leader later apologized for the comment, saying that he had spoken in an “inartful way,” but Dacus argues a valid point was made nonetheless: “Judges are making extremely significant decisions, decisions that dramatically impact the lives of individuals—such as whether they’ll ever live outside of prison again or see their children again,” says Dacus. “Judges presiding over cases such as these need to be articulating the justice and fairness of their decision, acknowledging arguments brought by both sides, and explaining the rationale behind the assessment of these arguments. Doing this effectively would provide a greater perception that the decision was fair.”
Dacus predicts it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing more courtroom rage as a result of decisions handed down in family and juvenile court. “In these courts, judges make decisions behind closed doors,” he says. “Overwhelmingly, research shows that among the general public there is much greater confidence in juries. Juries are thought to be more fair and sympathetic than judges.”
In general, in the court of public opinion, he says, there seems to be a palpable resentment of the judicial system in civil and criminal court, and a lack of trust. “You see it in criminal cases: Someone who is innocent can’t say a word until they have an attorney present, because the general perception is that there is an immediate effort to prosecute anyone who implicates themselves in any way.” This fosters less trust in our law enforcement system, which bleeds into our judicial system, Dacus explains. Those who have or feel they have been abused by these systems—even those who routinely see others abused by them—see these systems as ineffective, become angry and consider taking matters into their own hands.
“Yes, there were mental issues involved with both these individuals we heard about on the news,” Dacus conceeds. “And judges will tell you they get mentally unstable people appearing before them in their courts every day. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a level of disenfranchisement that triggered this. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with the way our judicial system works.”
A focus on courtroom security is a short-term solution, Dacus says. Long term, the way to decrease violence is to increase the levels of trust and perception of fairness in the judicial system.
Wosje agrees, believing that the legalese is such that even those who have won in court sometimes don’t understand that the judge ruled their way.
“In one instance on TV, a [defendant] was asked after leaving court how she felt about the judge’s decision. The woman was very angry. She was saying, ‘The judge didn’t even listen to me.’ And the funny thing was, it was a default hearing judgment, meaning the defendant got everything she wanted!”
Wosje says those who bring a grievance to court don’t want just a favorable ruling; oftentimes they want to share why they are upset. And while judges don’t need to be touchy-feely, they do need to work on their communication skills—verbal and nonverbal. She currently is working with colleagues at the judicial college on courses that teach judges the basics when it comes to effective communication for John Q. Public, with judicial writing courses that “better communicate their orders.”
“Judges need to be clear to a public that needs to feel like it’s being heard; getting a fair shake,” says Wosje.
Mize agrees that litigants need to believe that they’ve been heard, that they’ve had their day in court. “And that’s why, when I am suspending a visitation or revoking custody, once I do it, I always look them in the eye and explain why I’m doing it, and what steps they can take to fix the issue. Got an anger issue? Get therapy. Got a drinking or drug problem? Go into rehab. I am as direct as I can be when I hand down my orders, and all judges should do everything they can to come across as having carefully considered both sides.”
To the extent that improvements can be made, says Mize, judges need to do that and should do all that, but, at the same time, he points out how critical—critical, he emphasizes again—it is that the public understand the role of a judge.
“A judge’s job is not to legislate,” he says. “They make their calls based on facts, law and the constitution. A ruling may be totally opposite of their political leanings. It often is totally opposite of what the majority wants. Often you will hear the public complain: ‘This judge isn’t following the will of the people!’ ‘The people don’t want this.’ That’s inappropriate.”
Mize says judges are an easy target for the masses. “They are not in a position to raise money or armies to support their rulings; in fact, after they’ve put one out, they’re supposed to be quiet about it.”
Unless that ruling makes national news because someone didn’t like it.