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In the wake of a shooting at a Fayette County magistrate’s office in 2018 that left four injured and the shooter dead, a coalition emerged in Washington County to advance security measures in district courtrooms, to better protect the public and courtroom staff potentially at risk to an active shooter.

“This was a group effort and a broad coalition of local leaders to review the risks and take actions to ensure the men, women and children who enter a District Judge office and the staff who works there is as safe as possible,” according to District Judge Jesse Pettit who joined others in the effort.

As a member of the Washington County Court Security Committee - which was formed in 2019 in an effort to improve court security measures locally – Judge Pettit advocated for increased security for the Magisterial District Courts. At the formation of the court security committee, Washington County’s Magisterial District Courts did not screen visitors at the door for weapons.

The committee was launched by recently retired President Judge Katherine B. Emery and Chaired by Judge Gary Gilman, in addition to Judge Pettit, other committee members included County Sheriff Sam Romano, County Court Administrator Patrick Grimm, Board of Commissioners Chief of Staff John Haynes, and Judge Valarie Costanzo.

“I’m a lifelong gun owner, I have safely stored guns at my home for hunting and personal protection, this effort was about ensuring an individual cannot enter a courtroom with a weapon of any kind. A judge is largely protected, but the very first individuals at risk are those sitting in a waiting room.” Judge Pettit continued.

Understanding the importance and benefits of increased security measures, Pettit reached out to friend and fellow Magisterial District Judge, Ronald Haggerty. Haggerty serves Fayette County, and shared with Pettit the changes Fayette County officials had made following the shooting. In the first six months after the shooting, Fayette County began using metal detecting wands and kept statistics about the number of weapons coming into the courts. Approximately 25 guns were discovered.

Judge Pettit explained it like this, “If guns, knives and other weapons are entering neighboring county courtrooms then it’s happening here, so we wanted to advance those best practices utilized in other public spaces and courtrooms and enhance them here at home in Washington County District Judge offices.”

Using the statistics from Fayette County, Judge Pettit made a plea to his fellow court security committee members to increase door security, and within weeks, the county began having armed security working in all 11 magisterial district courts.

“These enhanced safety measures will ensure that all of Washington County District Judge Courtrooms are safe, with the necessary security to ensure a fair, respectful and most importantly, safe experience for the public.”

While Judge Pettit is a strong advocate for gun ownership rights, endorsed by law enforcement organizations and recommended by Firearm Owners Against Crime, an advocacy group, his greatest concern is public safety.

“If you’ve ever been in my courtroom or any other District Judge courtroom, the first point of contact is the general public. This is often times kids waiting with parents for truancy cases or business owners waiting for their civil case to be heard or your average citizen with basic traffic tickets, and no screening or security. That needed to change and we made it happen,” Judge Pettit explained.

Pettit, 46, of Venetia, was elected magisterial district judge in 2017 in the area that includes Peters, Nottingham and Union townships and Finleyville. Judge Pettit has been recognized by his peers by being appointed to serve on the Pennsylvania Special Court Judges Association and serves as Treasurer of the Washington County Special Court Judges Association.

A Washington County native and a married father of four, Judge Pettit graduated from Trinity High School in 1993 and is a cum laude graduate of Ohio University. He earned his law degree in 2001 from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a co-founder and president of the Family Law Society.

A former prosecutor, Judge Pettit has worked both as a Deputy Attorney General in the Organized Crime and Narcotics Division of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. He entered private practice in 2006 and has represented businesses and individuals in Washington and Allegheny counties in a wide array of civil litigation and family law matters.

He is currently running for judge in the Washington County Court of Common Please following the retirement of President Judge Katherine B. Emery.

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