AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A Texas Senate committee unanimously approved a bill Monday that would increase security for courts and judges in the Lone Star State, following testimony from a judge who was nearly assassinated at her home in 2015.
Senate Bill 42, authored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would amend current state laws relating to the security of courts and judges.
An assassination attempt on Travis County District Court Judge Julie Kocurek in November 2015 revealed glaring weaknesses in security for state judges and in courts. Kocurek was shot and severely injured in her driveway as part of an alleged plot to kill her.
Travis County officials were supposedly aware of a threat but did not inform Kocurek, who recovered from her injuries and later returned to the courtroom. She was awarded a $500,000 settlement because of the county’s improper handling of the threat. The three suspected perpetrators of the attack are in jail and awaiting trial.
A subsequent survey of Texas judges revealed that nearly two-thirds of them did not know of or have a court security plan.
As a result of the attack, the Texas Judicial Council established a Court Security Committee, which found deficiencies in court security practices, training and funding.
The council recommended various changes, including the creation of a director of security and emergency preparedness position at the Office of Court Administration (OCA), establishment of local court security committees, required security training for judges and court personnel, and the removal of judges’ personal information from public documents.
SB 42 would implement those changes. It would also require a copy of a security incident report to be given to the OCA for any incident involving court security, and add a $5 filing fee in civil cases to pay for security training.
The bill defines “court security officer” as a sheriff, sheriff’s deputy, municipal peace officer or any other person who provides security for an appellate, district, county, municipal or justice court in the state.
Those officers would be required to have a court security certification from a training program approved by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement within one year of the date the officer began providing security for the court.
Importantly, SB 42 authorizes the Texas Department of Public Safety to provide personal security to a state judge who has been threatened or attacked. Such protection can also occur at locations outside of the jurisdiction in which the judge serves.
The bill would allow federal and state judges and their spouses to redact personal information from public records, including information on financial statements, county registration lists, appraisal records and driver’s licenses.
On Monday, Judge Kocurek and her 17-year-old son Will testified before the Senate Committee on State Affairs about the 2015 attack and importance of the bill.
Will described the night his mother was attacked: “I always thought the violence that she saw would stay in her courtroom. But on Nov. 6, 2015, that all changed.”
“As I drove into our driveway, we saw a trash bag in front of our security gate. I got out of the car to move the bag so we could open the gate and drive through it. I was moving the bag to the passenger side of the car when a masked man in a hoody with a gun appeared out of the darkness,” he said. “He ran past me, and I realized he was after my mom who was in the front passenger seat. I stood between the man and the front passenger side door so he could not get to my mom. The man then ran to the driver’s side of the car, pulled out the gun and shot my mom four times through the driver’s side window.”
Will continued, “As fast as he ran up to me, he ran away. My mom had been shot and I immediately knew it was because she was a judge. I called 911 and we got her up to the porch. I told her goodbye because I thought I would never see her again. I thought she was going to die. She was in the hospital for 40 days. We had to move out of our home. Our whole life was torn apart. This experience is why I support this bill.”
Judge Kocurek then spoke of the attempt on her life.
“As Will described, these were the most terrifying moments of our lives. With us today are everyone who was in that car—my sister and my nephew who was sitting right behind me. We are so lucky that we all walked away from that horrible night,” she said.
“One thing I knew, I knew immediately that someone was trying to kill me for simply doing my job. During the 40 days I was in the hospital, I underwent 26 surgeries. As I sat at the hospital, I questioned—I will admit I questioned—why I had chosen this line of work—coming face to face with high risk people every day. I could retire. But then after time passed, I realized that this was bigger than me. I needed to return to the bench to show that justice will prevail over violence.”
Kocurek’s testimony continued, “When I returned to work, I examined the current security practices of Travis County. Most of our judges were not aware of any security protocols and we were not involved in developing security policies. In fact, prior to this incident, two weeks before I was shot, county officials received a tip that there was a defendant, and they knew he was in my courtroom, and he was going to kill the judge. My own bailiff, who sits 20 feet from my desk, knew of the threat. He looked at the email and he did not think it was appropriate to tell me.”
Kocurek said she has been working on erasing her “digital footprint” and that it has been difficult to remove her personal information from the internet and public records. She added, without going into specifics, that her AT&T phone number was used in her attempted assassination.
“Immediately after the shooting, I was fortunate to have Travis County provide security for me when I was in this county. But when I needed to travel out of the county, I was told by DPS that they had no authority to provide security to judges…None of the Texas law enforcement agencies were able to help me,” the judge testified. “Senate Bill 42 addresses these problems. California and many other states have passed similar judicial security bills…I do hope you will make note of this when you consider the judicial pay increase so that we will have funds to secure our homes. I urge the committee to favorably consider this bill and send a message to those who try to intimidate our judicial system through violence.”
SB 42 has been named the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017 in her honor.
The bill was approved by a 5-0 vote in the committee and now moves on to a vote by the full Senate.
An identical companion bill, HB 1487, was filed in the Texas House. It is pending in committee.