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McClatchy Newspapers and Forum staff reports, Published January 05 2012

Hennepin County judge refuses to hear cases

MINNEAPOLIS – A Hennepin County judge and vocal critic of a lack of weapons screening at courtrooms says he is refusing to hear cases at suburban courtrooms until stronger security precautions are put into place.

“I’m tired of driving to Brookdale, the courtroom everyone who knows agrees is the most likely place for a shooting or violence to occur, and not know whether I will be carried out in a body bag that day,” District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman wrote in an email to his judicial colleagues Wednesday, citing the high number of domestic violence cases at that courtroom.

“I ask that you stand in solidarity with me. Do not go. Don’t take my place,” he wrote.

Court administrators are now scrambling to find replacements for hundreds of Zimmerman’s misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases in the suburban courts. Zimmerman, 57, said he would continue to hear cases in Hennepin County where there is full screening at the courthouse.

District 7 Court Administrator Timothy Ostby said it is unlikely any judges in this area would be called to take his place.

District 7 Judge Lisa Borgen sits on the bench in Clay and Becker County Court.

At the Clay County Courthouse – which also houses county administration offices – there is full security screening at the entrance. There is not in Becker County.

“They don’t, but they are working on getting it,” Borgen said. “Ultimately I think it would be best for all courthouses to have secure entrances and metal detectors. It comes down to budgets and priorities.”

Borgen said she and all judges who serve in the county backed Sheriff Tim Gordon’s request to install screening in Becker County Courthouse.

Zimmerman’s ultimatum follows a Dec. 15 shooting at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais that critically injured a prosecutor and witness, underscoring concern about the lack of weapon screening at courthouses in some Minnesota counties.

Zimmerman declined to say whether any judges had agreed to join him in protest.

Concern about safety

Ostby said 28 District 7 judges routinely preside in more than one of the 10 counties in the district.

Security varies at each courthouse depending on the size and layout of the building as well as the county sheriff who is responsible for court security plans.

“I don’t want to minimize the security issue. We do have some concerns in some of our counties. Some of our courthouses are old and don’t lend themselves to really easy answers,” Ostby said. “Certainly the Cook County situation has raised the level of concern.”

Borgen said that although screening is different between Clay and Becker counties, she feels the use of sworn deputies providing security is a benefit.

Court administrators say they’re in the middle of a $77,000 study by a consulting firm to determine how to improve security. Zimmerman’s action won’t derail the study, they said.

But Zimmerman contends a study isn’t necessary to show that metal detectors, or at least metal-detecting wands, are necessary to protect the hundreds of people who stream through suburban courtrooms for cases ranging from traffic tickets to domestic assaults.

The four-month study, paid for by the court’s operating funds, should be completed this spring.

No changes planned

On Wednesday, Chief Judge Kevin Burke said he thinks suburban security should be considered but that the state’s budget problems also need to be recognized. He supports the study.

Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson anticipated no immediate security changes.

“Do I think a study is necessary to inform me that we need more security? No,” Swenson said. “Do I think a study is necessary to inform others and better help us accomplish what we want? Yes.”

Zimmerman frequently tells the story of his sister, who he said was a deputy sheriff in Chicago when she was the first to respond to a call of shots fired in 1983. She entered a courtroom to find a judge dead with a gunshot wound to the head. A gunman had killed him and an attorney.

“Every time I go there,” he said of the Brookdale courtroom, “I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to come home.”

Forum reporter Wendy Reuer contributed to this report.