AJC opposes motion to seal records in Fulton grand jury probe

Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney speaks during a motion hearing at Fulton CountyCourthouse in Atlanta on Friday, July 1, 2022. Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney at a roughly 90-minute hearing Friday did not come to a final decision about what exactly the District Attorney’s office can ask Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, former state Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick and several other unnamed state legislators. But he said that anything related to their conversations with other legislators or motivations are off-limits. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney speaks during a motion hearing at Fulton CountyCourthouse in Atlanta on Friday, July 1, 2022. Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney at a roughly 90-minute hearing Friday did not come to a final decision about what exactly the District Attorney’s office can ask Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, former state Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick and several other unnamed state legislators. But he said that anything related to their conversations with other legislators or motivations are off-limits. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is opposing a request by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office to put under seal court documents it intends to file in the ongoing investigation of former President Donald Trump and his allies.

“Operating the judicial branch of government in an open and public manner is fundamental to our system of justice as a matter of both federal and state constitutional law,” the AJC’s motion said.

In a court filing on Monday, the DA’s office asked Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who is overseeing the special purpose grand jury investigation, for permission to file its motion under seal.

“The state submits that the filing contains sensitive information, the public disclosure of which would cause certain harm to the privacy of persons in interest that clearly outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure,” said the motion, filed by DA Fani Willis’ deputy DA, Will Wooten.

The DA’s office gave no indication what the upcoming motion was about. But it did note that the office’s request to McBurney was also sent to attorneys Holly Pierson and Kimberly Burroughs Debrow.

Pierson and Debrow represent 11 of the 16 Republican alternate electors who cast fake Electoral College votes for Trump in a ceremony inside the state Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020. Their vote, conducted in secret, coincided with the official votes cast by 16 Democrats for President Joe Biden in the Senate chamber.

In prior court filings, the DA’s office has said the 16 alternate electors are targets of the special purpose grand jury that is investigating attempts to interfere with or influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Among the 11 fake electors represented by Pierson and Debrow are: Shawn Still, the Republican nominee for state Senate to represent District 48 in Fulton and Gwinnett counties; Atlanta lawyer Brad Carver of the Hall Booth Smith firm; state GOP chair David Shafer; Joseph Brannan, treasurer of the state GOP; and Vikki Consiglio, assistant state GOP treasurer.

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Chairman David Shafer speaks at the Georgia GOP State Convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia on June 5th, 2021. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

Chairman David Shafer speaks at the Georgia GOP State Convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia on June 5th, 2021. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

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Chairman David Shafer speaks at the Georgia GOP State Convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia on June 5th, 2021. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

In its motion filed on Monday, the DA’s office also asked McBurney to keep private any other court pleadings and evidence filed in response to the motion it wants to be put under seal. And it asked the judge to conduct any hearing on the matter in relative secrecy, with only the interested parties and their lawyers allowed to attend.

In response, the AJC noted that while the presentation of testimony and evidence before the special purpose grand jury is not open to the public, court motions and proceedings “remain subject to the presumption of openness.”

The presumption of openness is particularly strong with respect “to public officials, public persons and government employees who have chosen a career path that invites public scrutiny,” said the AJC’s motion, signed by attorneys Tom Clyde and Lesli Gaither.

The AJC’s motion also says the DA’s office “fails to identify any argument, evidence or legal authority to support the relief it seeks. ... Paying nothing more than ‘lip service’ to the closure standard in this way is exactly what the Georgia Supreme Court has rejected time and time again.”

The ongoing investigation “is a matter of profound public interest,” the motion added. “Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a special purpose grand jury investigation of more public importance than this one.”