WASHINGTON (AP) - A national group of court officials asked Congress on Thursday to make federal money available to improve security at state and local courthouses.
Court security and the dangers facing judges and others in the legal system have made headlines this year with the killings in Chicago of a federal judge's husband and mother by an angry litigant and the deadly shootings of a judge and court reporter in an Atlanta courtroom.
"Court security is just not on somebody's radar screen until you have these tragedies," said Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts (www.ncsconline.org).
McQueen said little of the money that Washington sends to states in homeland security grants is used for courtroom security. She urged Congress to set aside perhaps 1 percent to 3 percent of those funds for security improvements at courthouses.
The request was a prevailing theme at a meeting on court security hosted by the center and attended by judges, bailiffs and others.
The Homeland Security Department indicated it favored letting states decide how to spend the money.
"It's perfectly allowable within our grants for those funds to go toward courthouses," said a department spokesman, Marc Short. "But I don't think you want a system where the federal government dictates to cities and states which infrastructure they should be securing with those funds."
At the meeting, judges and law enforcement officers discussed what has worked - and what has not - in efforts to secure courtrooms.
Participants said it was important to make sure that judges meet regularly with security officers and are willing to let law enforcers control a courtroom in the event of a violent outburst.
"We don't go to law school to figure out how to respond to disaster," said Maureen O'Connor, a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court.
At some courthouses, lawyers and other officials can pass through magnetometers in special express lanes. In other places, suspects with a history of resistance must wear stun belts that can be operated remotely by a security officer.
Many courtrooms also have a panic button at the bench, allowing judges to notify security on all floors of the building that there is a problem.
"Independence of the judiciary does not extend to putting people's lives in jeopardy," said Jonathan Lippman, New York's chief administrative judge.