By Amy Forliti
MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota judge said this week he would no longer hear cases at a courthouse that he believes is unsafe because of its lack of weapons screening.
Hennepin County District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman went public with his concern less than a month after a prosecutor and another man were shot at a northern Minnesota courthouse with minimal security. Zimmerman, who works in Minneapolis but rotates to a courthouse in Brooklyn Center, said the suburban location has a high concentration of domestic and assault cases, and he won't go there until weapons screening is in place.
"I'm no longer willing to risk my life, the life of court staff, the life of the public who have no choice about going to court," Zimmerman wrote in one of several e-mails to colleagues this week. In another, he wrote of his fear of being "carried out in a body bag."
He urged his colleagues not to volunteer to stand in for him.
"I ask that you stand in solidarity with me. Do not go. Don't take my place," he wrote.
Zimmerman's stance was first reported by the Star Tribune.
The county's chief judge, James Swenson, said he and other judges share Zimmerman's concerns. Hennepin County — Minnesota's most populous — received a proposal last month for a $77,000 courthouse security study. The proposal must go through several channels before the study is approved, and it would then take 16 weeks to complete. The county has 87 courtrooms scattered around Minneapolis and its suburbs, but only downtown locations have metal detectors.
"We're trying to go about this in a careful deliberate way and let all of our justice partners have their input," Swenson said.
As of Thursday, Zimmerman said, none of his colleagues had joined his refusal to serve at the Brooklyn Center location, known as Brookdale. He is one of 12 judges assigned to hear cases at outlying facilities on a rotating basis.
Zimmerman says officials shouldn't wait for a study, noting the weapons screening in the downtown government center was installed after someone was killed in a 2003 shooting in the building.
"Last time I checked judges were in charge of the courtroom — hats off, no chewing gum, no talking," he said in an e-mail to his colleagues. "When did we lose the power to make sure people were safe?"
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has called for increased weapons screening at all courthouses for years, and renewed that call in a Dec. 30 letter to county commissioners that he said was written before he knew of Zimmerman's concern. Stanek also cited the northern Minnesota shooting, and asked that the county "install metal detectors without further delay" in outlying locations.
The recent shooting happened in Grand Marais, a small town near the Canadian border, in a small courthouse without metal detectors. Moments after a man was convicted of a sex crime, he retrieved a gun from his car, returned to the courthouse and shot the prosecutor and a witness in the case.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Stanek said tight budgets shouldn't be a reason to skimp on courthouse security.
"We should be erring on the side of public safety," Stanek said. "Somebody does not have to die or be seriously injured before policy is changed and action is taken."
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said she recognizes the situation at Brookdale, and the court study could be helpful in coming up with alternatives. She also said she's been told administrators are looking at interim solutions.
"There is a cost to operating the court system that is not insignificant and it's a time of financial shortage," she said. "We'll obviously have to look at whatever alternatives that are suggested and the costs attached to them."
Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, said his group also is concerned about security and conducting an assessment on the issue, but he said he was disappointed with Zimmerman's approach.
"When you cross a line and say I'm refusing to do my job, it seems to me there are some issues there," Franklin said. "I'm not quite sure that I agree with that."
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press