Survey Captures Fear Level Among Texas Judges

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht

Hundreds of Texas judges say they have feared for their safety at least once in the last two years, and a majority didn't know they are required by law to report threats, according to a survey taken after the attempted assassination of a Travis County judge.

Travis County state District Judge Julie Kocurek was shot in the driveway of her Austin home on Nov. 6. After months of rehabilitation, she returned to the bench in late February. Officials say Chimene Onyeri, who faced probation revocation in Kocurek's court, tried to kill the judge.

A phoned-in tip a couple of weeks before the shooting that a judge's life had been threatened was briefly investigated, but with few details it was deemed not credible. Kocurek was not aware of the threat.

In 2013, the Kaufman County district attorney and an assistant district attorney were gunned down by a former justice of the peace who the office had prosecuted on theft and robbery charges, according to law enforcement officials.

After Kocurek's shooting, the state's Office of Court Administration emailed a survey to judges across the state. Of the 1,115 judges who responded, 38 percent said they feared for their personal safety at least once at work in the past two years. Forty-two percent said they were afraid at least once when away from work.

 

More than half of the judges surveyed said they did not know about the statutory requirement to report security incidents to the Office of Court Administration.

Judges need to take threats seriously, report them and take care with online and social media posts that might increase their vulnerability, said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. 

"Every incident, no matter how minor, needs to be noted and examined," Hecht said. "We'll be reminding judges that – don't blow this off. If a call comes in to the clerk's office and sounds like a crank, but they're making threats, then follow through. Tell law enforcement, tell the police, sheriff's office and make sure nothing falls through the cracks."

The survey also showed that while about half of the judges did not feel directly threatened in the past two years, 40 percent said they knew about courthouse incidents involving disorderly conduct, physical assaults, written and verbal threats, bomb scares, attempts to bring in weapons or prisoner escape efforts.

Separate courthouse entrances, secure parking and better screening at entrances were among suggestions for enhancing security.

Security concerns, and inconsistent reporting, are issues across the country, said John Muffler, a retired U.S. marshal and faculty member at the National Judicial College. Muffler worked with a few judges to create a survey for National Judicial College alumni issued in 2014.

Of the approximately 1,200 who responded to the national survey, more than 80 percent said they worry about their own safety, 31 percent said their families felt unsafe, 19 percent said they changed their professional conduct because of security concerns and 17 percent said their security concerns caused them to hesitate.

Most budgets in the judiciary focus on courthouses alone, Muffler said, instead of judges and court personnel. "The institution really lives and breathes in them," he said.

Judges tend to have parochial thinking, which can make changes in perspective about security difficult, Muffler said. They tend to be cavalier about it, too, he recalled.

"'If they're gonna get me, they're gonna get me,'" Muffler said judges have told him. "And I say 'what about your children,' and they pause."

Down the road, Hecht said a now-permanent committee on security will offer recommendations to address judicial security issues, and leaders will push for legislative changes including making it easier to keep information on judges private.

 

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