Gwinnett judge files to hold solicitor general in contempt of court

A Gwinnett County state court judge filed a motion to hold Solicitor General Brian Whiteside and four of his employees in contempt for alleged attempts to close court and cancel in-person proceedings due to the surging omicron variant of COVID-19.

“They did not appear virtually nor in person,” said Walt M. Britt, the Buford-based attorney for Judge Ronda Colvin Leary, who filed the motion Thursday in state court. “They just canceled court, posted a sign, canceled the interpreter without the authority or the OK from anyone with the authority to do that.”

The Gwinnett County solicitor’s office prosecutes misdemeanor crimes in state court and county ordinance violations in recorder’s court.

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Whiteside emailed all six state court judges and the administrator Dec. 30, stating that his office could not handle in-person court matters due to illness, according to court documents. The following day, a notice appeared on the solicitor’s office website saying: “There will not be in-person State Court beginning January 3, 2022 through January 20, 2022.”

Chief Judge Pamela D. South told Whiteside in an email that the court had already canceled jury trials, but said: “We ask that your available staff attend court appearances where in-person assistance is necessary (such as arraignments),” according to court documents.

On Monday, according to court records, solicitor’s office employee Mia McLean, who is named in the complaint, emailed a court administrative employee saying, “Court for the month of January has been cancelled. Judge Leary will not be needing an interpreter.”

The complaint says employees Melissa Sifuentes-Flores and Sherie Brown then posted a sign on a courtroom door canceling Leary’s arraignment calendar for Jan. 3, which contained 25 cases including several with domestic violence charges.

Later that day, Whiteside told the judges in a memo that about 30% of his staff was out due to COVID-19 cases or exposures.

“I do not want to have a super spreader event caused by packing a court room with large numbers of people,” he said.

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Whiteside in the memo decreed that no arraignments would be held this month, according to court documents. But the next day, he worked out a plan with the court to proceed with calendars of 15 or fewer arraignments, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Whiteside, who was quarantining Friday, said virtual court was not conducted Monday because of a misunderstanding about getting links.

About 300 people come through state court in a day, including police officers who respond to incidents all over the county, he said.

“There was no intent to close the court,” he said. “The intent was to hopefully have virtual. ...My job is to protect people.”

Leary went through her arraignment calendar Friday and three assistant solicitors showed up, Britt said.

A hearing on the contempt motion will be scheduled, Britt said. Each person found in contempt faces fines of up to $1,000 or prison sentences of up to 20 days for each violation.