Commission: Georgia judges violating law by closing courtrooms

A substantial number of Georgia judges — including ones in metro Atlanta — have been violating the law by denying the public access to courtrooms for everything from bail hearings to trials, according to the state judicial oversight commission.

The organization that investigates and disciplines judges issued an opinion Wednesday that the practice of closing courtrooms had become relatively widespread across the state, which it said is illegal in most instances. There are narrow exceptions that have to be outlined in a court hearing.

Instead, courts are having signs posted on doors denying access to the general public or specific groups, such as children, or having bailiffs block entry, said Robert Ingram, chairman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

“We wanted to make sure the judges respect and comply with the law … and we hope this decision will educate judges and prevent them from closing the courthouse door,” said Ingram, a Marietta lawyer. “We’ve had our own investigators and commissioners go out and visit a courtroom and they have been greeted by a bailiff or a deputy sheriff and been told to state their business or otherwise they don’t need to be there.”

The commission’s opinions are binding in that it’s the body that decides if judges should be sanctioned or removed for ethical violations unless the Georgia Supreme Court overrules it in a specific case.

Judges could ban a disruptive child or there may be instances in which children under 17 could be banned from a specific hearing but only after a hearing on the subject, Ingram said. Some judges say they ban the public because of space limitations.

The issue of unilaterally closing courtrooms arose last month when DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams ordered media and spectators out of the courtroom during jury selection at the trial of Andrea Sneiderman, citing a lack of space. He relented later that same day, saying the public had the right to attend.

In 2011, DeKalb County State Court Judge Barbara Mobley resigned following a JQC and GBI investigations into an assortment of charges, including having bailiffs question people about their purpose for watching, “chilling the public’s right to observe matters,” according to the JQC filing.

The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit outlining the practice of closing courts in Ben Hill and Crisp counties, often barring even family members from all proceedings except guilt pleas.

The center fanned out across the state this summer and found courtroom closing relatively common, said Gerry Weber, senior counsel for the center. “Sometimes it was a judge within a circuit, and other times it was the whole circuit,” Weber said. “A closed courtroom is one that is less accountable to the public. What is done behind closed doors can be different to what is done in the cold light of day.”

Other judges who have had such signs include Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford and DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger. A sign outside the courtroom of Fulton State Court Judge Patsy Porter, recently appointed to the seven-member judicial commission and scheduled to take office next month, said small children needed to be kept outside the courtroom and supervised by an adult. Attempts to reach Porter, Bedford and Seelinger for comment were unsuccessful.

Bedford told the Fulton Daily Report last week that he viewed the blanket exclusions of minors as a protective measure for the sake of the kids.

“I don’t have a closed courtroom policy,” he told the legal organ “With respect to 17-year-olds and below, they are children, and I don’t like the idea of children seeing their parents in chains, being brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles. I don’t think it’s right.”

Fulton Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher said he had belatedly learned of such signs outside his courtroom. He attributed them to overzealous deputies, who provide security and order. On Tuesday he issued an order that nobody was to be excluded from his court nor any sign affixed to the door without his written permission.

Signs impeding access were also found outside courtrooms of Fulton County Superior Court Judges Robert McBurney and Todd Markle by a reporter for Channel 2 Action News. Spokespersons for the judges said the signs had been posted without their permission, according to the television station.

The Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for security in superior court, dismissed the suggestion deputies were posting the signs without judicial knowledge.

“We don’t make signs. We don’t put up signs. The only exception would be if directed by a judge,” said Tracy Flanagan, spokeswoman for the Fulton sheriff. “The only exclusions of persons in courtrooms would be for reasons of safety and security.”

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this report.

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