RENEE ORDWAY

Security in the courts

Posted May 27, 2011, at 2:51 p.m.

I don’t believe anyone likes to beg.

It’s rarely flattering and quite often futile.

If you’re not sure of that, ask Daniel Wathen, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, or Leigh Saufley, the current chief justice.

Both spent a decent part of their tenures in that lofty and admired position pinching pennies to keep the doors to courthouses open and trying to salvage enough clerk positions to make the courts somewhat efficient.

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For many years I sat in the legislative chamber as first Wathen and then Saufley delivered the annual State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature.

Wathen waged a mighty and lengthy battle to secure funding for the computerization of the courts and began the ongoing journey to protect those who work and do business there.

Saufley has spent the past 10 years continuing that fight, with seemingly small yet important victories.

Today, thanks to those efforts, the state can provide entry security screening to courthouses about 20 percent of the time. In Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget there is an increase that will boost that screening time to 25 percent.

In this time of massive budget cuts, court administrators are pleased with that increase.

It was probably a good thing that the security screening was up and running at the Portland District Court last March when 42-year-old Val Graffa of New Gloucester arrived for a protection-from-abuse hearing.

Graffa told the marshals who found the .45-caliber Bond Arms, two-shot  Derringer-style handgun that he had simply forgotten it was inside the zippered pouch he was carrying.

One can only wonder what possibly could have happened in the courtroom had Graffa’s hearing been scheduled on a nonsecurity screening day.

The list of weapons seized when the security entry screenings are used is long, creative and frightening.

Emotional business is going on in the courtrooms of this state nearly every single day – divorces, custody disputes, domestic violence hearings and felony trials. There are people who go to court and lose their businesses, their belongings, their reputations and sometimes their children.

Yet, despite all of the evidence, all of the begging, legislators have been extremely reluctant to put forth the cash needed to properly protect those who work or do business there.

But then, last January, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot while hosting a public event in Tucson. A Maine legislative committee was formed to discuss whether security needed to be beefed up at the state Capitol and the state office building.

One legislator, lamenting the lack of proper security in the Capitol, put forth a bill that would allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry loaded guns in the building.

Then last Saturday, one of their own, Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, pointed a loaded gun at a man in a parking lot in Waterville. Wintle now faces criminal charges and has been sent to a mental health facility for treatment.

Shabang!

The committee convened, and lo and behold the legislative leaders rapidly proposed that just over a half million dollars be added to the Capitol Security budget so that when they return next January there will be machines and personnel in place to screen all those who enter for weapons.

Thus, Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, has said he’ll probably drop his bill allowing permitted lawmakers to pack heat.

Sometimes it is amazing how quickly the wheels of democracy can spin, and how easily $546,000 can be unearthed if it will ensure the safety of our lawmakers.

In some states, such as Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, laws have been passed that allow judges to carry loaded guns in the courtroom. The state Senate in Tennessee just unanimously passed similar legislation.

In many cases, those bills were proposed because of the states’ inability or refusal to pay for reasonable security measures at the courthouses.

It’s illegal in Maine, by the way, for judges to pack beneath their robes.

And maybe that’s a good thing. But I have spent a fair amount of time in the presence of judges in the courtroom and a fair amount sitting through legislative hearings.

I’m not sure I like the idea of anybody carrying a loaded gun in the work place, but I can tell you that those appointed to the bench go through a lot tougher selection process and screening than do the legislators, and they are most certainly in a more vulnerable position every day.

Most likely the legislators will feel a lot safer next January thanks to the new and improved security measures.

And I’m sure Justice Saufley will politely put forth her briefcase for examination and remove the change from her pockets when she enters the building to once again ask, or beg just a bit, for a little more money to keep the courts and the people who use them as safe as our legislators.

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