CHEYENNE — A district court judge in Laramie sparked a conflict between the state’s legislative and judicial branches late last year over control of courtrooms and courthouses. House and Senate lawmakers want the enmity to end.
When Judge Jeffrey Donnell issued an order that guns and deadly weapons were not allowed in the Albany County Courthouse in November, the county commissioners were upset that Donnell was regulating the whole courthouse.
“The courthouse belongs to the county, and county commissioners are in charge of the courthouse,” said Tim Sullivan, chairman of the Albany County Commission. “The judge felt he had the authority to restrict weapons in the courthouse.”
Sullivan wants the law clarified.
The law states that the judge has control of the courtroom and the “peripheral office.” The commission thought Donnell only had control of the courtroom and his office, but Judge Donnell thought it was the courtroom and everything else in the courthouse, Sullivan said.
Amid the controversies surrounding gun issues, the name of the bill, “Deadly weapons in a courtroom,” makes the issue seem more controversial than it is. It’s really about figuring out who’s responsible for the courthouse, Sullivan said. “Is it the people’s courthouse or the judge’s courthouse?” Sullivan said.
He who cleans the bathrooms controls the courthouse, said Rep. Keith Gingrey, R-Jackson, a co-sponsor of the bill. “That’s the county commissioners,” he said.
The bill would alleviate some of the tension between judges and lawmakers, Gingrey said. “Are we going to write the law, or are judges going to write the law?” Gingrey said. “I would prefer that we write it.”
If lawmakers don’t make a decision, each judge will have his own interpretation, Gingrey said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill Wednesday that would let the Legislature regulate who can or cannot bring guns into a courtroom. The bill was sponsored by House Majority Leader Kermit Brown. Sullivan reached out to him. It passed the committee by a 4-1 vote and now heads to the Senate floor for its first debate. The bill passed the House last week.
Brown said he crafted the legislation carefully. He only wants the law to designate that deadly weapons stay out of the courtroom. The jury rooms, bathrooms and any other room where a judge does not preside over a court of law are not subject to the guidelines of the bill.
Judges around the state have been sending Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Schiffer droves of emails.
“They’re a prickly bunch,” said Schiffer, a Kaycee Republican, in regard to the judges.
The judges worry that the law would encroach on their inherent authority over their courthouses.
“I don’t think it impedes on inherent authority,” Brown said.
After he made the order, Donnell wrote a letter to the Albany County commissioners. He wrote that he’d been pushing for more court security for years, saying he experienced death threats, fist fights and bomb scares in the courtroom.
“Had any of those incidents involved weapons, and there is no reason they could not have, it is highly likely that someone would have been killed or seriously injured,” Donnell wrote.
If the bill passes, judges will still have the authority to designate who can carry in the courtroom. As of now, state statute allows open carry in the courtroom. But concealed carry is prohibited.
“Primarily what you’re dealing with are people who are mad at the defendant,” Gingrey said.
When the bill was in the House, Gingrey submitted an amendment that would change the language in the bill from “deadly weapons” to “firearms and explosive or other device as specified.”
The amendment didn’t pass. When the Senate discussed it, Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, removed a boot, placed it on the table and referenced one of his colleagues.
“If I beat Senator Burns to death with it, is that a deadly weapon?”
Brown took out a list of statutes and read the definition of a deadly weapon.
“If you brandish the boot in that manner, it is,” Brown said to Hicks.
The jocular scene provided some comic relief, but cowboy boots and other everyday goods aren’t the worry of lawmakers. If the bill passes and people were to carry knives into the courtroom by mistake, they would be subject to a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and up to two years in prison.
Whether they would be tried as felons would depend on a county attorney.