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."

"He does have a temper."

"I was gonna fistfight him."

"I was done dirty."

Case after case -- 729 times last year alone -- Petrie is the one to make a decision that inevitably leaves someone upset. And although that has always been part of being a judge, the increase in hostile responses is changing the very nature of American courtrooms. Once universally accessible, the modern courthouse now features not just the Kevlar-reinforced benches and panic buttons, but camera monitors, walk-through magnetometers, X-ray scanners and, just in case all of those measures fail, "safe" rooms and detailed evacuation plans.

There are guides to making courthouses safer ("Are spectator seats solidly built and fastened to the floor?" asks one checklist. "Are public restrooms routinely searched?"), and there are measures to make judges feel safer, including a recent $12 million congressional appropriation for federal judges to install alarm systems in their homes.

"Obviously, had the Lefkow family had such a system at home, this horror could have been avoided," Joan Lefkow told the Senate Judiciary Committee when she testified in May. "We judges are grateful beyond words to this committee and the Congress for authorizing this appropriation so quickly after this latest tragedy."

In Danville, though, and in versions of Danville in every state, many courtrooms remain as open and accessible -- and unprotected -- as ever. Kentucky is not the richest of states, and Boyle County, where Danville is located and where the unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, is not the richest of counties.

It is instead a place with a courthouse built in 1862 that has county offices as well as court facilities inside, and multiple unguarded entrances. In that entrance? That's the sheriff, LeeRoy Hardin, who said, "Well if they'd give me a plate of money, we could solve the problem, but that ain't gonna happen."

In that entrance? That's the county executive, Tony Wilder, who said that he's reluctant to turn the courthouse into "a fortress" because the voters of Boyle County prefer "that small-town atmosphere when they come to the courthouse" -- even though one of those voters once mailed him his picture, cut from the newspaper, with a bullet hole in his forehead.

Six months after Petrie was targeted, there are still no magnetometers at the entrances, no scanners, no security cameras and no equivalent of the U.S. Marshals, only a sign inside the main entrance that says, "The possession of concealed weapons, even with proper permit, prohibited on this property."

"Literally, you could walk into this courthouse with a MAC-10 under your coat, and no one would know it until you pulled it out," said Circuit Court Judge Darren Peckler, whose courtroom and chambers are on the second floor.

Like Petrie, Peckler has a panic button within reach. "But the sheriff's office is only open till 4," he said, "so if you panic, panic before 4 o'clock."

"That's exactly right," Sheriff Hardin said.

Peckler has an application on his desk for a concealed weapons permit that would allow him to bring a gun into the courthouse, which he is wondering whether to submit.

"I'm not opposed to guns. I own guns. But there's something about carrying a gun into churches and courtrooms," he said. "I don't want to give into that mentality. But I guess I'd be a fool not to consider it."

Thirty-five miles north of Danville, in the chambers of U.S. District Court Chief Judge Joseph Hood in Lexington, there's no such hesitation.

"It's with me whenever I move," Hood said after reaching into his briefcase and pulling out a semiautomatic pistol that he is holding in the air. "There are people out there wrapped not too tight. Their bubble is off-center, if you know what I mean."

He added, "These Glocks are good pieces of equipment."

Over in Frankfort, in his office on the second floor of the state Capitol, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert said he also has considered getting a gun. "Have I done it? No. But I have thought about it," he said. "I can anticipate a situation in which I might be faced with a threat and might need a weapon."

As chief justice, Lambert is also chief executive of the Kentucky court system, overseeing 267 judges, 3,400 employees and courthouses in 120 counties. He said that most of those courthouses have "excellent" security, but he also said, "We're seeing behavior today in court that absolutely would have been unheard of a generation ago. People talk back. Yell back. There's a greater degree of anger.

"I think Family Court is probably the very worst," he added. "Because people are crying to their core."

Back in Danville, the crying core of a 57-year-old man named Ronnie Gay Cornett was revealed in a note he wrote that authorities say was intended to be his eulogy, to be read aloud after he killed himself, his ex-wife, her attorney and Petrie, who had been the judge in his divorce. "Thank you all for coming," is how the handwritten note began. "I would hope everyone would remember me for any other reason than the actions that brought us here. The simple fact is everyone regardless of how strong an individual they are has a breaking point!!!"

The eulogy was just one piece of paper that authorities say Cornett left with a friend. There also were burial instructions, ("Pall bearers no suits"), financial instructions ("I don't reckon I owe anyone else other than what Petrie ordered but argue since we're both dead that goes away"), and an admonition to "Read the 31st psalm" -- a psalm, Petrie said as he sat in his office with a Bible one day recently, "about David being persecuted and his enemies are all around him."

Petrie is an elder in his Presbyterian church. He is also a husband, a father of two young children and lead singer in a classic rock band that practices in the backroom of a cellular phone store, which is where he was when he first heard of the threat against his life.

"Where are you?" he remembered a state police detective saying in a phone call. It was late at night, the hours when Petrie is called several times a week for an emergency protective order.

Petrie explained he was practicing with his band.

"No, I mean where are you? Right now?" the detective interrupted and told Petrie about the eulogy, the instructions and the threat, and that the police didn't know where Ronnie Cornett was.

Cornett, who has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder, has yet to go on trial. Because of that, Petrie doesn't want to talk specifically about the case. Instead he defers to authorities, who say they learned about the threat from a tip from a friend of Cornett's, and to a court file. In it is Petrie's divorce ruling, in which Cornett's wife got the Cadillac, the boat, the jewelry, the artwork and the house, and Cornett got the farm, the truck, the knives, the gun safe and the guns.

It also includes the results of a search warrant executed on a "gray hard Samsonite briefcase with the initials R.C. with a combination lock with three numbers to open (326)," inside of which police say they found $10,000 and 13 Imodium A-D caplets.

And the results of another search warrant, this one on a 2003 Chevy Tahoe, in which they found the accordion file, the hollowed-out packet of papers, a Colt .45, two seven-round magazines filled with bullets, and a 15th bullet in the Colt .45's chamber.

What's not in the court file is any sense of the eight hours between the detective's phone call and Cornett's arrest. "I remember feeling sick to my stomach, feeling like I was going to throw up," said Petrie's wife, Lesli. Petrie said he was up all night, in his den, lights down and drapes drawn, waiting for the next call from police.

At 5:30 a.m. it came: Stay away from work, they told him, and keep the children home from school.

Then came another call just before 7 a.m. saying that Cornett had been taken into custody, and soon after that, after talking things over with his wife and waking his children, Petrie decided to go to the courthouse. He walked in the unguarded entrance. He made his way to the unguarded third floor. He went into his unguarded courtroom, gaveled another session of Hate Court into order and methodically began working his way through the day's docket -- just as he is doing this day, six months later.

In the intervening months, there have been some changes. One involves an alarm system at Petrie's home; another involves an unmarked parking space at the courthouse; another involves deputies with handheld metal detectors who now wand anyone going into the courtroom. Petrie said he is also considering the answer he got from the state police when he asked them what he could do for protection, and they answered, "Buy a gun."

What hasn't changed: the cases themselves, which remain as sad and angry as ever.

"I just don't want me and her to get into it anymore," one of the sisters is now saying quietly, head bowed, no longer glaring, and that's how that case ends, not with a restraining order but with two sisters walking out into the hallway.

Onto the next case: a woman who said her husband twisted her arm, threw her to the ground and threw a remote control at her head.

Voices rise. Bailiffs, tense, watch. Petrie puts his head in his hands, even more of him disappearing from sight. Two days from now he will be taking a class to get his concealed weapons permit, but for now he's a judge not with a gun, but a question.

"And then what happened?" he asked.

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 Joan H. Lefkow, left, told a Senate panel that new security steps might have saved her husband and mother.