In light of recent violence and threats to federal judges, the possibility of threats on local judges and attorneys has caused some concern, but most officials agree that Centre County doesn’t have a serious problem.
The judges at the Centre County Courthouse, though, have talked with Centre County Sheriff Denny Nau about the recent violent events within courthouses across the country.
“The judges and sheriff just met [last Wednesday] morning about security issues and concerns,” said Judge Charles C. Brown Jr., Centre County Courthouse president judge.
Brown said he has not been involved in any threatening situations in his 25 years as a judge in Centre County.
Recently, a Florida judge in the Terri Schiavo case has a threat of a $50,000 bounty on his head.
In late February, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow, found her husband and mother shot to death in her Chicago home. A suspect in the case later committed suicide, leaving a note admitting to the murders.
In Atlanta, Brian Nichols is facing charges for the murders of Judge Rowland Barnes, court stenographer Julie Ann Brandau and deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley.
Bellefonte Police Chief Duane Dixon said no threats have been reported in the Centre County Courthouse.
“I don’t remember it being an issue for as long as I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for 25 years,” Dixon said.
State College attorney Andrew J. Shubin said he is not aware of any serious problems in Centre County.
“There are more dangerous situations in the federal context where stakes are much higher,” Shubin said.
Robert Ackerman, Dickinson School of Law professor and director of the Center for Dispute Resolution, said his family’s safety was threatened years ago in another part of the country in the midst of a money collection case, but it was not a serious situation.
“You think twice when what you do in your career can expose your family to harm,” Ackerman said.
Shubin said he thinks the problem of violence against judges and lawyers is a sensationalized issue.
“I don’t think threats to judges and attorneys are nearly as significant as threats to victims and witnesses,” Shubin said. “Those people are in much more tricky situations.”
Ackerman said the problem is not necessarily worsening, but it is more evident because of the “availability heuristic.”
“If something is in the headlines, people think about it more,” Ackerman said.
Lucy Johnston-Walsh, supervising attorney at the Family Law Clinic at the Dickinson School of Law, said the topic of threats is discussed with students studying family law.
“Law students are taught to be aware and cognizant of the dangers of threats,” Johnston-Walsh said.
Ackerman said the law school does not teach courtroom security or how to deal with threats because it does not fit into the law school curriculum.
Brown said that depending on the nature of the threat, whether it be imminent or not, he would consult with the police.
“We judges of course are concerned about anything — anyone making a threat or even clenching a fist,” Brown said. “Also, it is not just the question of keeping a judge from being harmed, but everybody.”
Shubin said if he received a threat from a client he would do as much as he could to defuse the problem without involving the police in order to keep his client out of trouble.
However, he would contact the police and marshals if necessary, he said.
“I sort of just hope it doesn’t happen to me,” Shubin said.
By Halle Stockton. The Associated Press contributed to this report.