Subject: Security of Courts and Judges in the State
Effective: September 1, 2017
The assassination attempt against Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek in the fall of 2015 underscored the urgent need to evaluate the state’s court security policies. Shortly after this incident, the Office of Court Administration sent a court security survey to judges in the state. This survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of judges do not know of, or do not have, a court security plan; more than 30 percent of judges were aware of a security incident in the year prior to completing the survey; nearly two-thirds of judges reported that no court security training has been provided in their courthouse; and nearly two-thirds of judges are unaware of existing statutory security incident reporting requirements. Accordingly, the Texas Judicial Council established a Court Security Committee. This committee found serious deficiencies in the state’s security posture, including a lack of court security best practices, training, and funding.
S.B. 42, named the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017, implements recommendations from the Court Security Committee, including creating the position of Director of Security and Emergency Preparedness at the Office of Court Administration, establishing local court security committees, requiring court security training of judges and court personnel, adding a $5 filing fee in civil cases (and directing the comptroller to credit such fees received to the Judicial and Court Personnel Training Fund), and facilitating removal of judges’ personal information from public documents. These changes would improve court safety for judges, employees, and citizens of Texas.
TMCEC: The 2015 shooting of Judge Julie Kocurek was not only shocking in its audacity but also made world-wide news. Judge Kocurek, a former prosecutor and sitting district court judge, was ambushed in her driveway while returning home with family from a high school football game. Three men were ultimately indicted in the conspiracy, one of which had been set to appear before Judge Kocurek on criminal charges. Most surprising, however, was that Judge Kocurek had not been informed of a death threat against her that was previously known by law enforcement. S.B. 42 attempts to address these and other issues affecting judges across the state.
Section by Section Analysis
Section 2: Required Reporting of Security Incidents
The Office of Court Administration has collected data related to court security incidents since 2007. At that time it was found that there were more than 4,200 security incidents in a one-year period, and nearly 40% of the state’s courtrooms had no security resources other than a security officer. The security incident report, to be sent to the Office of Court Administration within three days of the incident, is not new. The amended Article 102.017 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, however, places the obligation squarely on the agency or entity that provides security for a court to report a security incident not only to the Office of Court Administration, but also to the presiding judge of the court in which the incident occurred. This directly addresses the fact that previously, in Travis County as elsewhere, judges were not being made aware of potential threats to the court
Sections 3-4, 9: Court Security Committee
S.B. 42 adds Section 29.014 to the Government Code chapter outlining general provisions for municipal courts and Section 30.00007 to the Government Code chapter for municipal courts of record. This section creates a new requirement that the presiding municipal judge establish a court security committee within the city. The committee, chaired by the presiding judge, is meant to establish policies and procedures necessary to provide adequate court security. Importantly, the bill takes the guesswork out of the committee’s composition. In addition to the presiding judge, the committee is required to include a representative of the agency or entity that provides primary security for the court, a representative of the city, and any other person that the committee determines will be of assistance. S.B. 42 also requires that the county create a similar committee for county courts.
TMCEC spoke to clerks around the state at the regional seminars during the last academic year about the importance of establishing policies and procedures. Many clerks questioned how to begin the process. S.B. 42 provides a framework to help courts kick things off where court security is involved. There is no requirement that the committee meet more than once, but it would be beneficial for courts to embrace the opportunity to bring court stakeholders together to periodically and consistently reevaluate the security of the court and its users.
Sections 5-7: New Civil Filing Fee
Section 5 amends Chapter 51 of the Government Code by adding Subchapter N, creating a new filing fee. The Judicial and Court Personnel Training Fee is a new $5 fee collected on the filing of any civil action requiring a fee. Municipal courts are not authorized to collect this fee. The fee, however, will be deposited into the Judicial and Court Personnel Training Fund. This is an account in the state’s general revenue fund that may be appropriated by the Court of Criminal Appeals to provide funds for continuing legal education of judges and court personnel. This account partially funds many of the state’s judicial education entities, including TMCEC.
Section 6 amends Section 56.003 of the Government Code by adding Subsection (h). This directs the Court of Criminal Appeals to grant legal funds to statewide professional associations and other entities that provide court security training.
Section 7 amends Section 56.004(b) of the Government Code, requiring the Legislature to appropriate funds from the Judicial and Court Personnel Training Fund to the Court of Criminal Appeals specifically for training individuals responsible for providing court security.
Section 8: Creation of the Office of Court Administration Judicial Security Division
This is a fairly large change to the organization of statewide court security continuing education, and potentially could have ripple effects within the greater court education arena that may not be fully appreciated in the short term. S.B. 42 creates an entirely new division, as specified in Chapter 72 of the Government Code, within the Office of Court Administration. This division is required to provide a central depository of resources, expert opinions, and training on court security. This Judicial Security Division will be overseen by a director who is also responsible for implementing the process to withhold personal information of judges and their spouses in the public records. Courts across the state are no doubt interested in the resources that it will provide.
Sections 15, 24: Required Court Security Officer Training
Court security officers are essential to the safety of both court personnel and court users. One survey conducted by the Texas Attorney General found that most respondents were concerned simply by the perceived risk of potential violence due to overcrowded courtrooms and the absence of police officers.
Section 15 amends the Government Code to add Chapter 158 (Court Security Officers). In a nutshell, this chapter requires that a person may not serve as a court security officer unless that person holds a court security certification. Court security officer is broadly defined to mean a municipal peace officer or any other person assigned to provide court security. Beginning September 1, court security officers have one year to complete the certification from the time he or she first begins to provide court security (Officers already serving in that capacity on September 1, 2017 have until before September 1, 2019 to complete the certification).
This requirement will likely be a challenge for courts, whether large or small. For large courts, the sheer number of individuals performing court security could make meeting this requirement expensive and time consuming. For smaller courts that may borrow from the pool of available officers with the local police department on a court day, the pool may become much smaller. Some courts use private security companies. Also, both large and small courts may have difficulty cycling officers through certification is such a short time frame.
How much of a challenge this will be for courts remains to be seen. The bill does not specify what the certification entails. The current version of the court security specialist certification approved by TCOLE consists of seven courses totaling 40 hours of in person training. Although TMCEC has provided this training there are few other providers at this time. S.B. 42 provides that TCOLE will consult with the Office of Court Administration to develop a model court security curriculum. It is possible that the curriculum will be all or part of the existing courses for the court security specialist certification, but it is also possible that it will be something else. It is unclear when that curriculum will be developed or released.
Sections 17-22, 25-26: Removal of Personal Information for Judges and Spouses
One of the most significant aspects of S.B. 42 is the protection it places on the personal information of judges and their spouses. Conspicuously, it was not just anywhere that Judge Kocurek was shot; rather, it was in the driveway of her own home. For years, privacy and court security advocates have pointed out that public records may provide a security loophole through which disgruntled defendants may seek to take out their anger on the judiciary. S.B. 42 closes loopholes in Chapters 552 and 572 of the Government Code, Chapters 13 and 15 of the Election Code, Chapter 11 of the Property Code, and Chapter 25 of the Tax Code for a variety of public records. The bill protects personal information of judges and their spouses on the voter registration form, property records, tax appraisal records, and driver’s license records. Combined with similar procedures protecting the home address for court personnel in S.B. 510, it appears that the state has taken important steps to improve court security.
For upcoming training on court security, visit the Bailiffs and Warrant Officers page on the TMCEC website.
Best Practices in Court Security A publication of the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center with funding from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (2013). This publication is an academic overview of the field of court security. As a practical matter, it raises issues to consider in developing a comprehensive court security plan, and includes resources produced by national organizations dedicated to the support of courts. At the least, hopefully this publication will begin a dialogue in courts about their security concerns and plans. To order a copy, complete and send this publications order form to TMCEC.
Court Security Handbook: Ten Essential Elements for Court Security and Emergency Preparedness prepared by the Conference of Chief Justices/Conference of State Court Administrators Joint Committee on Court Security and Emergency Preparedness (June 2010): An October 2003 survey of state courts "produced a framework for addressing court safety and security called Ten Essential Elements for Court Safety and Security." Those elements were identified as:
Although this handbook is not intended to provide detailed answers to every court security and emergency management preparedness question, it does provide the user a convenient yet significant gateway to this information.
Steps to Best Practices for Court Building Security prepared by the National Center for State Courts (February 2010): In conducting court building assessments, the NCSC assessment team has evaluated court security in terms of "best practices" - guidelines describing those security measures that should be in place with respect to a comprehensive set of topics covering court buildings and court operations. Acknowledging that implementing best practices in court building security will require increasingly scarce budgetary resources, the NCSC assessment team has also developed steps in phases that can be taken toward achieving best practices in various areas of court building security.
Guidelines for Implementing Best Practices in Court Building Security: Costs, Priorities, Funding Strategies, and Accountability, a paper by the National Center for State Courts funded by the State Justice Institute (2010): This paper contains four parts:
Court building security is not a one-time achievement. It is a serious and continuous goal and requires constant vigilence. Following the recommendations in the Steps document, along with the guidance provided in the four parts of this paper, can help courts minimize the risks and help keep the public, court staff, building tenants, and judicial officers more safe and secure.