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A Hennepin County judge and vocal critic of a lack of weapons screening at three suburban courtrooms says he is refusing to hear cases at them until stronger security precautions are put into place.
"I'm tired of driving to Brookdale, the courtroom everyone who knows agrees is the most likely place for a shooting or violence to occur, and not know whether I will be carried out in a body bag that day," District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman wrote in an e-mail to his judicial colleagues Wednesday, citing the high number of domestic violence cases at that courtroom.
"I ask that you stand in solidarity with me. Do not go. Don't take my place."
Zimmerman's ultimatum follows a Dec. 15 shooting at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais that critically injured a prosecutor and witness, underscoring concern about the lack of weapon screening at courthouses in some Minnesota counties.
Zimmerman, 57, an 11-year veteran of the bench, said he intends to continue hearing cases at Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, where visitors are screened before they can enter the court and administration towers.
He is one of 12 judges who rotate one week per month at the county's three suburban courtrooms in Brooklyn Center, Edina and Minnetonka. He is scheduled to hear cases at the Brookdale courtroom in Brooklyn Center next week.
Court administrators, who are scrambling to find replacements for hundreds of Zimmerman's misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases, say they're in the middle of a $77,000 study by a consulting firm to determine how to improve security. Zimmerman's action won't derail the study, they said.
But Zimmerman contends a study isn't necessary to show that metal detectors, or at least metal-detecting wands, are necessary to protect the hundreds of people who stream through suburban courtrooms for cases ranging from traffic tickets to domestic assaults.
Hennepin County Court Administrator Mark Thompson said the study by the National Center for State Courts is a thoughtful way to determine which security practices would work best for Hennepin County District Court rather than simply a "knee-jerk solution."
The four-month study, paid for by the court's operating funds, should be completed this spring.
Concern about safety
Thompson said that although the potential for risk exists, each suburban courtroom is staffed with armed deputies.
"People approach safety from their own experiences, and I think Judge Zimmerman reacted the way he did because he genuinely felt some concern for himself," Thompson said. "I haven't heard the same concern of that level from other members of the bench."
Zimmerman made his decision following a meeting with administrators Tuesday in which he recommended deputies at least use a wand to screen visitors at the courtroom door. He said his concerns went unheeded.
On Wednesday, District Judge Mark Wernick, presiding judge of the Criminal Division, e-mailed Hennepin County judges asking for volunteers to replace Zimmerman at Brookdale.
He added that administrators were working past "institutional and financial barriers" to implement screening, "which we believe can and will be overcome."
Wernick's message incensed Zimmerman, who contended that people don't have a choice about entering the crowded courtrooms at Brookdale, as well as Ridgedale in Minnetonka and Southdale in Edina.
"I've been told the one thing I don't have the power to do is make sure people are safe," he said Wednesday. "How right is that?"
Zimmerman declined to say whether any judges had agreed to join him in protest.
No changes planned
Weapon screenings were implemented at the Hennepin County Government Center in 2005. A $1.8 million security system was installed after one person was shot and killed and another severely wounded on the building's 17th floor when a distraught woman opened fire before a court hearing over a restraining order.
Even after the shooting, the issue of whether to install a security system was the subject of debate. In a 2003 Star Tribune article, then-Chief Judge Kevin Burke said security upgrades at the suburban courtrooms should be discussed.
On Wednesday, Burke, still a district judge, said he thinks suburban security should be considered but that the state's budget problems also need to be recognized. He supports the study.
"I think if there has been any failure, it was that once the Government Center security issue was finally resolved, the issue of the suburbs really did take a very secondary role," he said.
Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson anticipated no immediate security changes.
"Do I think a study is necessary to inform me that we need more security? No," Swenson said. "Do I think a study is necessary to inform others and better help us accomplish what we want? Yes."
Zimmerman frequently tells the story of his sister, who he said was a deputy sheriff in Chicago when she was the first to respond to a call of shots fired in 1983. She entered a courtroom to find a judge dead with a gunshot wound to the head. A gunman had killed him and an attorney.
"Every time I go there," he said of the Brookdale courtroom, "I don't know whether I'm going to be able to come home."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921