Judges Are Seeking Cover on The Bench

Judge Bruce Petrie in Danville, Ky., has a bullet-resistant bench and armed bailiffs but he is thinking of carrying a gun after police thwarted a plot to kill him.
Judge Bruce Petrie in Danville, Ky., has a bullet-resistant bench and armed bailiffs but he is thinking of carrying a gun after police thwarted a plot to kill him. (By David Finkel -- The Washington Post)
By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

DANVILLE, Ky. -- An unprotected head, an exposed neck and the top few inches of a judicial robe: That's all that can be seen of Judge Bruce Petrie as he bunkered down on his bullet-resistant judge's bench, panic button within reach, armed bailiffs nearby, taking on the first case of the day.

Two sisters had gotten in a fight, first with words, then with punches.

"Do you believe this is a fair and accurate representation of the injuries you sustained?" Petrie asked one of the sisters as he studied a photograph of some bruises.

It was an utterly routine question -- except this is the year that being a judge has been anything but ordinary. The number of reported threats against judges has been increasing. So have verbal and physical attacks against judges and other court officials, in courthouses and elsewhere. A judge in Atlanta was gunned down in his courtroom. In Florida, the state court judge in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case had to be put under protective guard. In Chicago, the husband and mother of a federal judge were gunned down by a man who had broken into the judge's home to kill her.

"The madness in the shadows of modern life," is how that judge, Joan H. Lefkow, described these times in a recent congressional hearing about judicial safety.

Six months ago, Petrie's little courtroom in the center of this pretty town, on the top floor of a courthouse with a gazebo in its lawn, was as it always had been. "You would have walked in, taken the elevator to the third floor and walked into the courtroom and not seen any law enforcement until the bailiff came in and said, 'All rise,' " Petrie said.

Then came the arrest of a man who is now charged with Petrie's attempted murder, the day the shadows extended into Kentucky. According to authorities, the man was on his way to a hearing in Petrie's courtroom with an accordion file stuffed with papers, and that the papers had been hollowed out to conceal two clips of ammunition and a gun.

"It was just another case to me," Petrie said of the case he was to hear that day. It was a case about a restraining order, just like the case this day involving the two sisters, which is why, after asking a routine question of a woman who has been glaring at her sister, Petrie is watching carefully as she swivels her head toward him.

"Do what ?" she said, seething.

Petrie, 39, is a judge in Family Court, also known by those who work in it as Hate Court, and Demonic Relations. The court for divorces and domestic violence cases, it is a funneling point for such rawness and heartbreak that when Petrie became a judge, he used part of his acceptance speech to acknowledge the tenderness of those he would be judging, saying with sympathy, "There is a lot of sadness that comes through our courts."

Now, thousands of cases later, he would add anger, a litany of it as the morning goes on:

"Nobody makes me angry and gets away with it."

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