Friday, July 26, 2019

Safety, Security, and Southern Life

When I worked for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, security was always an issue. Over the years, Federal Judges have been the targets of violence and, tragically, assassination in a few cases. While, thankfully, Judge Williams never had such a situation. There were a few instances  we had to deal with. 

Due to the Judge's high profile, the local police were always vigilant of their additional responsibility. Given the chambers were one block from the Fire Department, we had an alarm system, and there was secure  access to the chambers, we always felt very safe.

There was also the attitude of the citizens of our fair town who thought highly of her - as a fine southern lady.  Few understood what she did and the status of her position. Once, when a local hairdresser learned that her client was one of the Judge's attorneys, she commented, "Oh my, we just love her. She has such beautiful skin." Another time, one of the Judge's high school teachers lamented, "We always thought she would do more with her life, like be a secretary." 

It was lost on most folks that she was nominated and appointed by the President of the United States, then confirmed by the US Senate for a position as a US Constitutional Article III Judge - just one level below the US Supreme Court. (Keeping in mind Article I pertains to the US Congress and Article II to the Presidency.) They would often comment, "She is just lovely, I think she is a judge, , she doesn't have a courtroom, she goes to Richmond a lot, but she can't fix a parking ticket." We were in Richmond, VA, the seat of the 4th Circuit, 1 week a month for court which only added to the mystique.

There were several "panic" buttons in the office. Mashing one of these would activate a silent alarm that would alert the police, and they would immediately come to chambers. More often than most, if the alarm was set off, it was due to the Judge inadvertently hitting the button under her desk. The police would show up, I would meet them at the door, and explain that is was, once again, a false alarm. Only once did an officer go further than this. 

When I explained to this young policeman that it was a false alarm, he smiled and said, "Mam, I'm sure it is, but can I see the Judge, just to make sure she is OK." I laughed and led him down the hall to the Judge's office. I commented as we made our way. "You know you are the first police officer to actually ask to see her."

He smiled, "Yes mam, just doing my job." 

I guess, if any of the other situations were a case of breach of the perimeter and direct harm to the Judge, the police would have taken my word for her safety, thank me, and leave. 

There was the occasion when a homeless man was admitted to our chambers. As he sat in the reception area mumbling to himself, he said some threatening things about the Judge. Realizing this situation was more than I wished to handle, I excused myself, telling the man I would get the Judge for him. Instead, I activated a panic button and quickly found one of the attorneys to assist me. In a matter of minutes the police were there and handled the situation. We learned later the man was a little "off his rocker" and, although a bit concerning, was harmless.

On that fateful Wednesday morning of 9/11, shortly after the country realized we were under attack, the US Marshals immediately checked on the safety of each Article III judge in the state. Apparently, we were not that high on the "totem pole" given that the Marshals did not get around to checking on the Judge until that Friday, 2 days after the attack. 

The Marshals were very apologetic for this oversight. Visiting the chambers, they expected the wrath of the Judge. Characteristically, she just smiled and said, "Well, it's good to know you finally got here. Do you want to go with us to get BBQ for lunch?" Later, just among us, the Judge laughed, "You don't think they waited until now to check on us? After all you can't get BBQ on Wednesday."

All this gets to my new position in the legal office of DSS in Pickens, SC, a small town in upper part of the state, population 3,164 (total county population of 123,479). Being far away from the chambers of an Article III judge and the US Courts, I never thought of security. That was until my college roommate sent me the link to a news story about pipe bombs being placed in the Pickens County Courthouse and the county DSS offices. 

It was determined that the source of the devices was a local man unhappy with the amount of child support he was required to pay. Given the bombs were placed on a Sunday, I was comforted that the ATF were there Monday morning, shortly after the devices were discovered. After all the BBQ restaurants don't open until Thursday. 

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