A behind-the-scenes gun rights battle is pitting one judge against another who wants to protect himself with a weapon in his Anoka County courthouse.

In a bold move, John Dehen issued an order granting himself permission to bring a concealed weapon into any of his district's courthouses, a direct violation of a 2003 court order banning guns. John Hoffman, the district's chief judge, quickly trumped him with an order to re-enforce the ban.

But it didn't stop there. Dehen reissued his order, claiming Hoffman didn't have the authority to quash his order. Dehen said last week he had believed the orders would remain confidential.

Both judges' orders were forwarded to court administration, but aren't public because they haven't been filed. The Star Tribune has obtained copies of the orders.

"I believe judges should be able to make their own personal choice regarding their own security and safety in the courtroom, coming to and from the courtroom and in the courthouse," Dehen said. "As you may guess, we encounter dangerous people on a regular basis."

Two other Minnesota judges have asked to carry a gun, Dehen said, though he declined to give names. This wouldn't be an issue in Wisconsin and in at least 15 other states that allow judges to bring weapons into a courthouse.

Dehen said he isn't armed on the job and is contemplating his next move. But advocates and detractors of concealed-weapon laws nationwide aren't hesitating to weigh in on the debate. Meanwhile, Hoffman sought guidance from legal counsel employed by the state's Supreme Court Administration.

"In my view, his order is null and void and had no legal effect," Hoffman said.

Dehen, who has been on the bench for two years, said he never intended "to make this issue about me" when he first approached Hoffman in August to inquire about carrying a gun. Hoffman told him it was prohibited. Other than armed bailiffs in courtrooms, the only firearms allowed inside a courtroom are a gun submitted as evidence in a trial and weapons carried by a police officer or military personnel performing official duties. The only entry into the courthouse has a metal detector and screening equipment.

Hoffman later learned Dehen had safety concerns about a litigant from a divorce and child custody case. The Anoka County Sheriff's Office strongly advised him against bringing a gun into the courthouse, and Dehen assured everyone he wouldn't violate the ban.

Yet in September, Dehen issued an order that gave him the power to carry a gun "on his person." Dehen wrote that he wanted the order to be confidential, placed in a sealed envelope and retained by the county's court administrator.

A month later, the two judges met "to make sure we understood the ground rules" of introducing a gun into the courthouse and confirming Dehen wouldn't come to work armed without telling Hoffman. But Dehen's second order stated his initial order "supersedes and will continue to supersede" any judge's attempt to limit his possession of a firearm in the courthouse.

Murky legal territory

Joe Olson, a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, questioned whether a chief judge has more authority than the rest of the judges. "They are in a really murky area here," Olson said. "I don't believe there is an agreement by all the judges in the district that they give up power to the chief judge."

Hoffman said the chief judge by law, custom and history is invested with powers that are administrative in nature, but are over and above those set out statutorily and constitutionally for judges who serve on the District Court bench.

It was Olson's work back in 2003 that led to the ban Dehen is now fighting. Olson, president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, was a key contributor to the state law that made it easier for Minnesotans to get permits to carry handguns in public. The law appeared to prohibit local governments from restricting handgun possession in public buildings, though schools were a major exception.

Many courthouses are older, and it's difficult to have a single and secure point of entry. In Hoffman's district, only Isanti County doesn't have a metal detector or security guards at the entry. If a judge from that county asked to bring a weapon, Hoffman said he might have a different view than the situation involving Dehen.

Most judges receive threats, but it's rare that they are physically harmed. In March, a man stabbed a judge and shot a sheriff's deputy with her own gun in a courthouse struggle in Washington. In 2006, a former Reno pawn shop owner shot a judge handling his bitter divorce through a window. The previous year, a judge was shot to death in Atlanta.

Last year, Wisconsin became the latest state to allow judges to carry a weapon in the courthouse. Marinette County Circuit Court Judge Tim Duket, who retired in January and has a conceal-and-carry permit, confirmed with the state Supreme Court's Judicial Conduct Advisory Committee that he wouldn't face discipline if he carried a gun.

"I don't think a judge would make it public if they were carrying a gun," he said. Judges in New York must apply with the police department and offer a "substantial" reason if they want to have a gun, said Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, a union with more than 3,500 officers that handle security for all of the state's courthouses. The officers receive six months of training, including courses on hand-to-hand strategy to take down a person with a gun, he said.

Prosecutors can be armed

"If a judge pulled out a gun and starting shooting in a courtroom, the chances of an innocent person getting hit [are] enormous," he said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill allowing prosecutors to carry a concealed weapon if they receive approval from their county attorney and a judge. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, one of the legislators who proposed the law, wants judges to have the same choice. He said Hoffman's ruling was a "slap in the face" to Dehen.

"How could you not trust a person who makes decisions that impact people's lives to handle a decision to use a gun?" Cornish said. "This whole thing is getting kind of comical."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465