Security at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse has been an issue for years, and has prompted a lawsuit by the judges who work there.

Share story

In December, the Grays Harbor County Superior Court filed an unusual suit in which it claimed the county’s own Board of Commissioners had systemically denied it proper funding for years — including the funding to implement security.

The complaint alleged that the Montesano courthouse is the only one in the state with more than one judge that “is totally without courtroom security.”

The allegation couldn’t be verified on Friday, but it’s clear that the Grays Harbor County Courthouse is quite different from courthouses in, say, King or Pierce counties, where there are metal detectors and X-ray machines at every entrance.

The Montesano courthouse does not have metal detectors, video cameras or on-site security, Grays Harbor County Undersheriff Rick Scott said Friday after a Superior Court judge was stabbed and a sheriff’s deputy was shot inside the building.

Authorities were still searching for a suspect and on Friday night had no motive for the attack.

“We’ve been involved in discussions for well over a year now about what can be done,” Scott said. “The budget issues the counties have been facing, among other things, is the biggest reason security hasn’t been put in place.”

Even the judges’ chambers are accessible by the public, according to retired Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge David Foscue.

The lawsuit says there have been other incidents of violence in the courthouse. In the past two years, two attorneys were assaulted; a defendant “charged” a judge; and a judge who received a death threat during trial was not provided with adequate security, the lawsuit said.

The county acknowledged in court papers that “courthouse security is a concern,” but cited budget constraints as an impediment. County officials did not immediately respond to phone or email messages Friday.

According to budget information from the county, the Superior Court budget was cut from $733,320 in 2010 to $645,818 for 2012.

The county said in court papers that nearly every department took a budget cut, and that the state auditor found that it needed to continue to reduce costs.

There are no statewide laws governing courtroom security. Instead, the rules are set by local jurisdictions, according to Jeff Hall, state court administrator. In 2009, a statewide committee did, however, lay out guidelines.

Among them: “All courts should screen for weapons at every access point. All persons entering a courthouse should be subject to security screening.”

Courthouses are vulnerable to a variety of incidents, Hall said, including attacks on judicial officers, fights between litigants and escape attempts.

“There’s a fairly broad range of issues,” he said.

Family courts, where divorce and child-custody cases are heard, have been a major focus of concern since at least 1995, when a man going through a divorce took a gun into the King County Courthouse in Seattle and fatally shot his estranged wife, who was seven months pregnant, and two other women.

“Since the day after those murders, we have had weapons screening,” said King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen.

The issue had been debated for years before that, but the Metropolitan King County Council did not take action. Back then, according to then-County Councilman Ron Sims, they got “bogged in a debate over the constitutional right to bear arms.”

Today, the debate over security doesn’t center on gun rights, Inveen said. The main concern is the expense.

Seattle Times staff reporters Andrew Garber and Jennifer Sullivan and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com