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Inside the Fortress Courthouse

The Sue & Chew is the new wave of courthouse snack bars. The food is bad enough to fend off the temptation to hang around longer than you must, but not so bad as to upset your stomach, because you can’t be interrupting trials for too many rest room runs.

They used to encourage hanging out. It was a courthouse snack bar where I met the elderly gentleman who had read in the newspaper that I hold dual citizenship in the Cherokee Nation and felt that he needed to meet me for the purpose of expressing that it was wrong for me to be on the public payroll because “Indians don’t pay taxes.”

In those days, I had not yet heard the argument that it was wrong for me to be on the public payroll because it’s not possible to serve two sovereigns. So I spent a long time trying to convince a hostile white guy that I do in fact pay taxes and I can offer fair trials to non-Indians.

I always wondered why it’s okay for white judges to try nonwhites but not vice versa? This was ordinary politics. I was dismayed by the conversation, but not threatened, and there was nothing odd about having it in the courthouse.

Nowadays, nobody wants to deal with the airport level security, although I will say that Sheriff’s deputies generally treat the public better than the surly TSA bunch at the airport. Most deputies greet strangers in a civil manner and most deputies don’t bark, excepting “K-9 units.” In police reports, they write “deployed a K-9 unit” when they mean “turned the dog loose.”

Technical talk is just humorous, but our acquiescence to the county courthouse as a fortress is a substantial change into which I was dragged kicking and screaming.

When the county commissioners were considering the magnetometers at the door, they were driven by news:

*A federal judge had been assassinated by a sniper at his home.

*A law school classmate of mine was shot dead in her law office during a deposition.

*A criminal defendant on a crosswalk between two courthouses produced a pistol and shot himself.

*Some years earlier, a lawyer opened fire in an appellate courtroom where the court was about to hear an appeal of his divorce case.

Nobody who works at the courthouse can miss the raw emotions that are revealed every day, but I’ve always thought family law more dangerous than criminal law. It’s the difference between seeing good people at their worst or bad people at their best, and it should be obvious that people have more emotional investment in their families than in their crimes.

Still, I doubt the wisdom of displacing violence to somewhere with a longer response time.

After turning down “security upgrades,” I came back from my classes at the University of Nevada one year to find my bench bulletproofed on the inside and two buttons installed, a yellow one and a red one.

I was told to use the yellow button if I became concerned that something might be about to get out of hand and the red button if it was already out of hand.

One day, I was hearing a request for a domestic violence protective order, and the husband was plainly trying to intimidate his wife during the hearing. When he disregarded my order to sit down and speak when it was his turn, I pressed the yellow button.

It seemed less than a minute when two deputies rushed into the room with pistols drawn. After that, I wondered how they would respond to the red button? Throw a flash-bang in first?

The magnetometer at the entrance has become as normal as in airports, but I did my best to stop it. I made a big show of complaining about the number of keys I carried, and it was quite a chunk of metal with home, work, and car keys on the same ring.

Having done that in a public meeting and been invited to a demonstration of the device that afternoon, I asked my court reporter to bring me the smallest pistol he had in his evidence boxes.

Sure enough, in the public demonstration, I was able to waltz though the magnetometer and not get a peep. There was some blushing when I pulled the pistol out of my pocket, but the commissioners were unanimous in the vote to install the machine. They knew that anybody who did not vote for the magnetometer would catch hell in case of a courthouse massacre.

Should tribal courts ape the colonists and turn the courthouse into a fortress? If we get what we are demanding in the Violence Against Women Act and tribal courts are once again trying white men who beat up Indian women, do we need more security?

I hope tribal courts do not go that way, and we can retain what was lost when elders and their grandchildren could no longer sit and read the newspaper with a drink and a donut in the Sue & Chew.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.