The Grays Harbor County Superior Court building in Montesano, Washington, has a stately profile that you can see from Highway 12 as you drive past. The vibe of the courthouse is low key. It wasn’t so very long ago that petitioners and respondents could represent themselves in civil disputes. As long as they showed respect for the proceedings, litigants could count on some help from the clerks and judges; and everyone would work to craft reasonable solutions to disagreements.
In recent years, the approach has become more formal. A growing number of methamphetamine-related drug cases has made the place more tense; and the growing role of state agencies in the affairs of troubled families has made the proceedings more bureaucratic. But the clerks are still friendly. And, if you’re not sure where you’re supposed to go to file paperwork or pay a fee, the person who shows you the way to the proper office might be one of the judges.
On the morning of Friday March 9, a man named Steven Kravetz was hanging around on the first floor of the courthouse. He was dressed “business casual,” in slacks and a blue button-down shirt; and he was carrying a briefcase, so some of the courthouse staff assumed he was there on business and went about theirs. Eventually, though, one of the judge’s secretaries thought the man was acting a little strangely and asked the county corrections officer working security that morning to find out why Kravetz was in the building.
If reports be true, and there’s no reason to doubt them, this is what happened next. The officer, a woman named Polly Davin, approached Kravetz and asked his name and whether he had business in courthouse. He gave her a false name and mumbled something about a hearing. Davin pressed for more details — and Kravetz lashed out, stabbing her repeatedly with a small knife he’d been hiding in one hand.
Kravetz lashed out, stabbing the officer repeatedly with a small knife he’d been hiding in one hand.
County Judge David Edwards, whose secretary had first noticed Kravetz, saw the scuffle from his office on one of the building’s upper floors. He rushed downstairs to Davin’s aid — separating her momentarily from Kravetz. This infuriated Kravetz, who stabbed Edwards several times in the neck and shoulder.
Davin drew her service weapon, a .45 semiautomatic pistol, and ordered Kravetz to stop. He didn’t. Having disabled the judge, Kravetz climbed back toward Davin and grabbed her pistol. He fired twice, hitting her once in the shoulder, and fled the building.
Courthouse staff responded quickly. Paramedics arrived in minutes to tend to Davin and Edwards and moved them to the country hospital a few miles away. Sheriff’s deputies and local police assembled to search the surrounding area for the shooter.
There were a few early missteps in the manhunt. At one point, the cops and deputies got a tip that Kravetz was hiding in a private home a few streets away from the courthouse. They surrounded the house, flooded it with teargas, and entered forcibly. It was empty.
Then, working from a report that included the false name Kravetz had given Davin, sheriff’s deputies in nearby Thurston County arrested a man named Michael Thomas. It quickly became evident that he had nothing to do with the shooting.
Back in Montesano, the cops ordered lockdowns of local public schools because someone had suggested that Kravetz might be a domestic terrorist, bent on attacking public buildings. Initial media reports on local radio and online picked up on this excitable theme, stating that “several people” had been shot and that the violence might have been politically motivated.
Rather than a method of last resort, courts have become the front line determining what the state can do and how it can do it. And they are overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, Kravetz had walked from the courthouse to a nearby lawyer’s office, where he asked to borrow a phone to call his mother — with whom he lived, about half an hour away in the suburbs of Olympia. While law enforcement agents were following SWAT procedures and ordering school lockdowns, the shooter’s mother came and picked him up in her late-model Ford Focus. She was unaware that her son had done anything wrong.
At the hospital, the news for Davin and Edwards was good. Their injuries were not life-threatening. The knife wounds weren’t deep and Davin’s bullet wound had gone “through and through” soft tissue near her shoulder. Both were examined, stitched up, and released by the early evening.
Local law enforcement eventually pieced together Kravetz’s real identity from the courthouse staff who’d seen him. Some remembered seeing him in the courthouse before. He had a history of minor run-ins with law — mostly related to his reputed bipolar disorder and a few episodes of petty violence against himself or his mother. During one hearing on his mental condition, Kravetz had submitted a 50-page “manifesto” that raved about the collapse of society and the inherent inferiority of women.
Friday evening, having muddled through the earlier miscues, the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s office posted a picture of Kravetz (who was 34 years old but looked and moved like a man at least a decade younger); they confirmed he was the main suspect in the attacks.
Kravetz’s mother saw the pictures the next morning and immediately contacted the authorities to cooperate. Her son was arrested without incident later Saturday.
In the wake of the attacks, several media outlets noted that Judge Edwards had previously warned the Grays Harbor County Commissioners that the courthouse lacked sufficient security systems to protect staff from the growing number of defendants, convicts, and other troublesome sorts being processed every day. He’d even filed a lawsuit — on behalf of himself and his two fellow judges — to force the county to reconsider state-mandated budget cuts that would deny the courthouse basic security.
In his lawsuit, Edwards had made the point that the court was stressed by the growing number of complex cases involving issues like drug distribution, domestic violence, heated custody battles, mental health disorders, etc. Specifically:
Within the past two years, two attorneys were physically assaulted in the Superior Court: A defendant charged one of the judges in a courtroom; a man came to the courthouse armed with a knife and asking for directions to the office of a judge; and there was inadequate security protection available when a judge received a death threat during a trial. . . . The Superior Court is the only superior court in Washington state with more than one judge that is totally without courtroom security.
The judge’s stab wounds and the deranged man who’d caused them would certainly underscore that argument. In the days after the incident, the County Commissioners agreed to move courtroom security to the top of its budget priorities list. They were said to be looking into metal detectors and closed-circuit video systems.
This story brings together two troubling trends in public policy, which conflict with each other — and will likely conflict with each other more intensely as this country’s finances grow weaker.
The first trend is the use of litigation as the ultimate tool of public policy. This trend serves as a kind of ideological parent to its subset, the criminalization of broad categories of private behavior. When the U.S. legal system was first developed, criminal cases were relatively rare things. Most legal actions were civil; and they were designed to serve as a formal process for resolving disputes that couldn’t be resolved informally by free citizens and their local . . . non-governmental . . . institutions.
This has changed. Rather than a method of last resort, courts have become the front line determining what the state can do and how it can do it. And they are overwhelmed.
Because our courts are, by design, the branch of government least responsive to the whims of the voter, feckless legislators and executives pass the buck to the judges. They pass laws and promulgate policies that are often imprecise, internally contradictory, and intentionally vague — all capped with the cynical qualification that “the courts can decide” the final outcomes.
In some of these cases, with no other father figure to rebel against, damaged people like Steven Kravetz lash out against officers of the court.
This pass-the-buck mentality trickles down to all levels of the statist bureaucracy. Faced with impossible or conflicting orders, some government agencies sue — literally, file lawsuits — for permission and instruction on how to proceed. This means job security for the armies of lawyers (specifically exempted from ethics rules against lying) employed by government agencies; but it’s bad news for everyone else.
Just as the Grays Harbor courts have become more bureaucratic and stressed, so has the entire American court system. Simply said, we count on courts to do too much: review (and, in some cases, finish writing) thousand-page laws; settle intensely personal family problems like domestic violence, divorce, and child custody; enforce poorly-conceived legal prohibitions against drug use and other behaviors; allocate dwindling resources among ambitious government agencies.
A side note: as a result of this overreliance, courts and judges become the main authority figure in the lives of some of our weakest citizens — the criminals, lunatics, and impaired ones who cannot fend for themselves and no longer have nongovernment institutions to look after them. In some of these cases, with no other father figure to rebel against, damaged people like Steven Kravetz lash out against officers of the court.
The second trend is the looming insolvency of the American government.
As I’ve noted above, one of the major responsibilities weak legislators and executives have ceded to the courts is allocating dwindling public-sector financial resources. As the federal government’s debt soars and the dollar loses value, the fight over scarce money inside the walls of the state will get fierce. Broke public-employee pension plans will sue to get money instead of underfunded welfare agencies . . . which will sue to get money instead of over-committed regulatory agencies.
Here, Judge Edwards’ suit against the County Commissioners over security resources for the courthouse is a harbinger.
Judges tend to be smarter than most government employees — they see the coming battles over government money. They know that they’re going to have to make hard and unpopular decisions. And what then? If nutters and irate divorcees are grievous security threats to the men in robes, what will we call hundreds of public-school teachers and government-employee unionists whose promise of gilded pensions has been reduced to a reality of threadbare 401(k)s? There aren’t enough metal detectors and CCTV systems in the world to secure against that threat.
Judge Edwards’ suit is also something like an M.C. Escher drawing. It’s an example of the very sort of action that will create more security risks courts in the future. Americans have lived by the sword of rampant litigation as our economy expanded; we may very well die by that sword as our economy contracts.
Edwards is a decent man (and I say that with some insight; he’s one of my neighbors) in an impossible situation. He tried to do the right thing when a deranged man attacked a courthouse staffer; and he’s trying to do the right thing by demanding additional resources to secure his courthouse.
When he grappled with Steven Kravetz, Edwards underestimated the violent capacity of a lone madman. As he fights the County Commissioners for more security budget, the judge may be underestimating the violent capacity of a growing line of angry litigants passing through the hard-won metal detectors.
Americans have lived by the sword of rampant litigation as our economy expanded; we may very well die by that sword as our economy contracts.
Security is a difficult thing to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. It’s situational — and can be lost when circumstances change even slightly; in times of social upheaval, it’s practically impossible. This is one reason that some experts argue security is most effectively established for individuals, not large groups or institutions.
Maybe judges should be armed in their courtrooms. As they were a hundred years ago, when the Grays Harbor County courthouse was built.