A Hennepin County District Court judge is being reassigned after refusing to hear cases at three suburban courtrooms until security is tightened.

District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman called his job change "punishment," but Chief Judge James Swenson and others say it's merely the best way to cover the court's business and allow Zimmerman to work under more secure conditions.

At least one of Zimmerman's colleagues said Monday that the clash between Zimmerman and Swenson has deteriorated into a "sideshow."

"What I thoroughly believe is that this is messed up," said District Court Judge Kevin Burke, a former chief judge. "We've gotten ourselves diverted from the question on how much we need to spend and devote to security versus other policy alternatives. It's become a personality contest ... and it took everyone's focus off the legitimate issues that Lloyd [Zimmerman] raised."

Burke, who acknowledges that's he's personally closer to Zimmerman than he is to Swenson, said he understands why Zimmerman perceives the reassignment as punishment. But it's not, he said. It's merely "the best choice at the time given the circumstances," Burke said.

The conflict percolated into public view last week when Zimmerman, a vocal critic of the lack of weapons screening at suburban courtrooms, announced he would no longer hear cases in the county's Brookdale courtrooms as part of his regular monthly rotation. He's one of 12 judges who rotate one week per month at the county's three suburban courtrooms in Brooklyn Center, Edina and Minnetonka.

Unlike the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, there is no weapons screening equipment at the suburban courtrooms.

Zimmerman's ultimatum followed a Dec. 15 shooting at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais that critically injured a prosecutor and witness.

Court administrators scrambled to find judges to fill in for Zimmerman's scheduled tour in Brookdale this week. And when Zimmerman said he also wouldn't return to Brookdale in succeeding months if the security issue wasn't addressed, Swenson said he was removing Zimmerman from his civil court assignment, which includes the monthly suburban court rotation.

Zimmerman said he was shocked at losing the civil court work, which he considers a coveted assignment. Instead, he may be transferred to family court. "I'm being transferred because I asked for a safer courtroom," Zimmerman said. "That's just wrong. ... The decision to send me to family court is punishment. It's vindictive."

But in an interview, Swenson said the reassignment "categorically isn't punishment." Zimmerman's concern is about safety and family court is in one of the county's safest buildings -- it's a building with one entrance that requires people to go through metal detectors, Swenson said.

Zimmerman said family court is the one area where he has no experience. If Swenson wanted to reassign him, he said he could give him juvenile court, which also is in a secure building and would be an assignment he would welcome. "I'm really good with kids," Zimmerman said. "Or, he could have put me on criminal assignment."

The problem with that, according to Hennepin County Court Administrator Mark Thompson, is that there is an opening in family court and not in the other areas.

"In running an operation where we have 62 judges and 15 other judicial officers, referees and the like, there are times when we can accommodate what people want and there are times when we can't," Thompson said. "Not everyone is going to be happy all the time."

Burke, who serves now as a family court judge, said he understands why Zimmerman may consider family court as "punishment" because in many court systems, courtrooms filled with dueling partners seeking divorces or cases involving domestic abuse are considered a less favorable assignment, and sometimes go to less senior judges "as a rite of passage."

But Burke points out that Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Swenson is passionate about family court and spent most of his judicial career there. "In Jim Swenson's mind," Burke said "he doesn't view family court as punitive at all. It's a very important assignment."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788