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Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice speaks on the need for increased security as threats to judges spike

A woman looks directly into the camera with rows of official-looking books behind her.
Davd Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media
Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox in her chamber in Cheyenne, April, 22, 2024.

Threats against judges are on the rise in Wyoming, as well as nationwide. Whether it's a defendant attacking a judge in Clark County, Nevada, or a disgruntled defendant in Wyoming threatening to rape a judge in court, some citizens have become increasingly bold in their interactions with judges, court staff, jurors and their families.

Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Kate Fox said that she's alarmed by the trends. When a bill meant to enhance protections for judges began working its way through U.S. Congress, she felt some relief. If passed, the bill will provide increased resources to the State Justice Institute, a service organization dedicated to solving problems faced by state courts around the nation.

But she’s not waiting. She's working diligently to increase awareness, and security measures, in courthouses and communities across the Cowboy State.

Wyoming Public Radio’s David Dudley spoke with Justice Fox.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. 

David Dudley: What kind of problems are you facing here in Wyoming?

Kate Fox: In Wyoming, just like across the whole nation, we're seeing more and more threats against judges. So it's an increasing concern for us. We have not, luckily, had shootings or physical attacks here in Wyoming. But those have occurred in many other states. So we think it's our responsibility to take whatever steps we can to prevent harm, not only to judges but to court staff, to jurors, to the public that should have access to and from our courtrooms.

DD: It appears that there was an upward trend. Is that accurate?

KF: Yes, there has been an upward trend in threats of violence. In Wyoming, of course, part of it is we're trying to do a better job of keeping track. But I do believe that there are many more threats now than there used to be.

DD: Do you and your colleagues talk about potential reasons why that may be the case?

KF: We do talk about it. I'm not sure that we have an answer.

DD: How long have you been a judge?

KF: I have been a justice for 10 years.

DD: And during that time, have you faced any threats?

KF: Personally, I have not. On the Supreme Court, we only hear appeals. So we don't have the interaction with the public or with the parties that the trial courts have. Because typically, a Supreme Court argument is presented by the attorneys. So we don't see the witnesses. We don't see the person who's being told that they're not going to have custody of their children. It's the trial court judges who have a lot more interaction and who tend to get a lot more threats of violence.

DD: And the threats, they don't always stay in the courtroom, is that correct?

KF: That's correct. We have judges in all of our counties. And in Wyoming, we have pretty small communities. People tend to know where the judges live. Sometimes they show up at their homes. Sometimes they see them in the parking lot of the supermarket. So that means that the threats aren't just to judges—they're to their families, their neighbors. And then to all the court staff, all the people who use the courthouses around the state of Wyoming.

DD: What will this bill provide?

KF: It will provide resources to an organization called the State Justice Institute (SJI), which is an organization that we've worked with over the years that provides resources for various things. And through the SJI grants, we would be able to have enhanced court security measures here in Wyoming.

But at the same time, I don't want to rely completely on this federal money. I think that it's something that we've been working on in our courts, and with the Wyoming Legislature, to make sure that we do have better court security throughout Wyoming, regardless of what Congress does on this bill.

DD: And when you say better security, what does that look like?

KF: Well, there are a number of things that would enhance judicial security. One of the complicating factors is that our trial courts—district courts and circuit courts—are housed in county buildings. So we don't own the building. And we can't dictate, for example, how many entrances there are. We have really good relationships with the county commissioners who host our courts in their buildings. And we also have good relationships with the sheriffs who provide the security for our courts. But they have many other duties than protecting judges and the court users, and limited resources as well. So there are really two main fronts that we're working on.

One is to provide physical security. Things like secure entrances, and not too many entrances. Our old courthouses had a lot of entrances and exits. And that doesn't work anymore, because we need to be able to monitor who comes in.

Ideally, you saw when you came in this courthouse, there's the magnetometers that make sure you're not coming in armed. So, physically, there needs to be better security and on the wealth of the county, where our courts are located. Some have better security than others.

And then the other thing is to have personnel, to have sheriff's deputies in the courtrooms, especially in cases that have the potential to be inflammatory. To be able to hit the button and get security in a timely manner when there's something dangerous going on. And that requires manpower.

The other thing we're working on, we actually did get a little bit of funding to help judges scrub their personal information from the internet, so that they can't be found. So that, for example, your home address and your children's names aren't available for people who may want to hurt you. So there are a lot of fronts that we're working on.

This federal bill would give us more resources to continue that. But whether or not that bill succeeds, we need to keep working on it here in Wyoming.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.

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