Judge lifts gun ban in courts

Friday, June 20, 2008 -- 768-4923

At a time when even nail files and pocket knives are barred from courts, Hillsdale County has reopened its historic courthouse to citizens who legally pack weapons.

Circuit Judge Michael Smith recently ordered the ``no guns'' signs removed at the courthouse in downtown Hillsdale, saying the ban is against state law.

Smith said that courthouses are not exempt from state concealed-weapons laws, so there's no way to lawfully stop people from carrying a concealed weapon if they're licensed properly.


The ban against citizens carrying guns in courts is based on a 2001 administrative order by the Michigan Supreme Court, not on legislation.

``Weapons are not permitted in any courtroom, office, or other space used for official court business or by judicial employees unless the chief judge or other person designated by the chief judge has given prior approval consistent with the court's written policy,'' the high court's order states.

Public places such as schools and churches -- but not courts -- were exempted under the revised concealed-weapons law of 1996.

Jackson County Circuit Judge Chad Schmucker said there are no plans to allow the public to carry weapons in Jackson courts, and no one is pushing for such a change.

``I believe the ban is valid but would reconsider if there is some contrary authority,'' Schmucker said.

Most courts in the region ban weapons and anything that could remotely be used as a weapon or fire starter.

Lenawee County goes a step further than Jackson, banning cell phones in its courthouse. Calhoun County does not allow anyone, including police, to carry weapons in its courts.

A citizens' group in Hillsdale County, Michigan Coalition for the Return of Constitutional Government, argued against the gun ban since its inception.

It has petitioned the Legislature and courts, citing the Michigan and U.S. constitutions that restrict the powers of government and enumerate the role of the three branches.

``Must a right stop at the entrance to a courthouse?'' coalition President Roger Keller asked in a letter last fall to state legislators. ``Must you give up your right to defend your life ... as a condition of entry into the people's courthouse?''



Keller said his group sent hundreds of letters to legislators and posted fliers around Hillsdale County, with little response. Smith's move, he said, gives him hope that citizens will demand their rights.

``Judge Smith ought to be commended for standing up for the constitution, and I hope the rest of the state will take notice,'' Keller said Thursday.

Smith had sought a metal detector at the entrance to the court in recent years, but the county commission could not find the money to buy the equipment and staff a security unit.

Instead, security cameras were installed.

Hillsdale County Sheriff Stanley Burchardt also provides an armed deputy at the courthouse and at the Courthouse Annex, where District Court is conducted.

``It's their court,'' he said of local judges and the decision to allow citizens to carry guns.

``I am responsible for safety in the courthouse.''

There have been no firearms-related incidents in Hillsdale courts, and no way to know if concealed-weapons permit holders continued to carry handguns in the courts in recent years.

``The big question is, if the gun ban is illegal here, then what about federal and state courts in Michigan?'' he said.

-- The Associated Press

contributed to this report