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Nevada AG asks court for decision on guns in Nye County courthouses

A long-simmering dispute over guns in Nye County courthouses appears to be headed to Nevada’s highest court for review.

On Tuesday, the Nevada attorney general’s office asked the Nevada Supreme Court to stop Nye County from relocating the courtrooms of two Fifth Judicial District Court judges in Pahrump and Tonopah to aging facilities elsewhere in the two communities.

Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Zunino wrote court papers that the Nye County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted in May to immediately move the courtrooms of judges Kim Wanker and Robert Lane.

The move, Zunino argued, was meant to punish the pair for refusing to follow a county order allowing people to carry guns in most areas of county courthouses, where security concerns have been voiced for more than a decade.

“In short, this case is about the Nye County commissioners’ desire to carry firearms in county courthouses,” Zunino said.

Zunino wrote that in Pahrump the county will move the judges’ offices and courtrooms from the Gerald “Bear” Smith Courthouse at the Ian Deutch Government Complex to a property at 250 North Highway 160. That structure was once used to house the Nye County sheriff’s office, but Zunino said the property is not large enough to accommodate courtrooms, holding cells, jury deliberation rooms, judicial chambers, offices, and furniture.

In Tonopah, courtrooms will be moved from the William P. Beko Justice Complex to a former “fitness center” that Zunino wrote “is in disrepair.”

“The pipes are broken, the roof leaks, it contains no holding cells, and it lacks the infrastructure to accommodate internet communications,” Zunino said. “The building is not suitable for immediate occupancy by any government unit, much less the Fifth Judicial District Court.”

Commissioner Frank Carbone declined comment on Thursday, citing the pending litigation. Commissioner Leo Blundo returned a reporter’s phone call but later could not be reached for comment. Commissioners Debra Strickland, Donna Cox and Bruce Jabbour did not respond to phone and email inquiries.

Online videos of archived county commission meetings make clear, however, that the commissioners believe members of the public have the right to bear arms in county buildings outside of courtrooms or judicial office space.

Jabbour said in the May meeting when the move was approved that he would “fight anybody who wants to enter a courtroom with any type of weapon. It’s not necessary.”

But Jabbour and other commissioners take issue with an 2010 order from Lane that prohibits weapons elsewhere inside Nye County courthouses and county buildings. Jabbour said citizens should have the ability to protect themselves if needed in public spaces, noting the judges and bailiffs in the courthouses already carry weapons but the public is not allowed.

“The judges have set up fortresses in the complex here in Pahrump, leaving others to flounder and have arbitrarily decided whose life is more important than others,” Jabbour said previously while discussing the conflict.

Lane and Wanker, meanwhile, have long expressed concerns about safety at court facilities in Pahrump and Tonopah. The two judges and their staffs deal with what are often contentious child custody, divorce, criminal and civil proceedings, but at the Ian Deutch Government Complex, there are no metal detectors at the building’s entry and no deputies are checking people for weapons.

“Every day you worry about it,” Wanker told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in January. “I worry about it when I get out of my car. There is a time and a place for people to be carrying guns. At the courthouse is not one of them.”

As a result, Lane issued the 2010 order. Lane said it at least allowed for a sign on the front door of court facilities informing the public that weapons are not allowed, and it meant courthouse bailiffs could challenge people they observed carrying weapons into the building, courthouse hallways or courtrooms.

“Every year or so we go to the commissioners and ask them to provide security in the courthouse,” Lane said earlier this year. “They haven’t done so so far. I believe their primary concern is the cost of the employees manning the front door and so forth.”

Nevadans have witnessed courthouse violence before. In 2006, Darren Mack killed his wife before shooting Family Court Judge Chuck Weller through a courthouse window in Reno. The judge had been presiding over the couple’s divorce. In January 2010, a gunman shot court security officer Stan Cooper at the entrance of the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse in downtown Las Vegas before other officers shot and killed the gunman.

Nationally, violence against judges has permeated recent headlines. Authorities say a Wisconsin judge was slain in his home Friday by a man the judge had once sent to prison. On Wednesday, a man carrying a gun, a knife and zip ties was arrested near U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house in Maryland after threatening to kill the judge.

Randy Harris is a Texas-based courthouse security expert for the private business U.S. Court Security Concepts. He said previously that there is much debate across the nation about the question of guns at courthouses.

“Courts in other places are struggling with it,” Harris said. “Some are saying yes, some are saying no.”

Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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