Gwinnett solicitor general apologizes, avoids jail time for contempt

Gwinnett’s new Democratic solicitor general, Brian Whiteside, peaks into a courtroom at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Friday October 11th, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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Gwinnett’s new Democratic solicitor general, Brian Whiteside, peaks into a courtroom at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Friday October 11th, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Gwinnett County Solicitor General Brian Whiteside admitted in a Monday court hearing that he had committed criminal contempt by unilaterally canceling a judge’s calendar in January as the omicron variant of COVID-19 surged.

Judge Charles S. Wynne, brought in from Hall County, suspended Whiteside’s sentence of three days in jail and a $1,000 fine after Whiteside apologized in open court to all Gwinnett’s state court judges.

“I’d like to apologize to our bench wholeheartedly,” Whiteside said to all six judges, who were present Monday in the courtroom. “I wasn’t trying to be contemptuous, but when it comes to the law, I actually was.”

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Judge Ronda Colvin Leary moved to hold Whiteside in contempt after he canceled her Jan. 3 arraignment calendar, which included several domestic violence cases. Whiteside’s admission and apology Monday were part of a consent order that settled the case.

The Gwinnett County solicitor’s office prosecutes misdemeanor crimes in state court and county ordinance violations in recorder’s court. The solicitor general and all state court judges are elected officials.

Whiteside told all the state court judges and the court administrator in written communications around the New Year that his office could not handle court in person because at least 30% were quarantining due to COVID-19.

Four of his employees were named in the original contempt petition for taking actions to cancel court, such as posting a sign on a courtroom door and canceling interpreters. The employees were later dropped from the case.

Whiteside initially attempted to cancel all arraignments for the month of January, but quickly worked out a plan to proceed with calendars of 15 or fewer arraignments.

Only the county commission has the authority to close any office in Gwinnett through emergency powers, said Leary’s attorney, Walt Britt.

Britt and Whiteside both said they were pleased with the resolution.

Whiteside said he tried to institute virtual hearings instead of canceling court entirely but couldn’t get a link set up.

“There was a communication breakdown,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We learned from our experiences.”

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Mia McLean, then a legal assistant in Whiteside’s office, canceled an interpreter at Whiteside’s direction, said her attorney, Christine Koehler. She and the other three employees initially named in the criminal contempt petition were initially misinformed that they would be arrested.

“My client found the stress absolutely unbearable and has resigned from the solicitor’s office,” Koehler said.

The employees are members of an indemnification plan that provides for their legal defense in civil or administrative cases that arise out of the performance of their job duties. The county has declined to provide them legal representation amid a dispute over whether the contempt case is criminal or civil, according to correspondence between Koehler and County Attorney Michael Ludwiczak.