Judge: Keep courtroom doors open

A federal judge has ruled pretrial proceedings in criminal cases should remain open to the public in a case brought against judges and sheriffs in a South Georgia judicial circuit.

U.S. District Judge Louis Sands, in an order Wednesday, refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of plaintiffs who were not allowed into courtrooms with limited seating inside law enforcement centers in Crisp and Ben Hill counties.

“This ruling is a ‘Public Welcome’ sign for Georgia courtrooms that have presented citizens with untold hoops and hurdles to public access,” said lawyer Gerry Weber with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

Depriving the public from attending pretrial hearings “could undermine the public’s faith in the modern criminal justice system,” Sands wrote. “Prohibiting the majority of the public from these proceedings often bars them from observing the entire justice system.”

The lawsuit alleges that judges and sheriffs in the two counties allow people to attend hearings only when certain exceptions are met, such as whether they are related to a defendant and when a defendant pleads guilty.

Among the plaintiffs was a 72-year-old woman who wanted to attend her grandson’s arraignment in Ben Hill County in January 2012 but was never allowed inside, despite available seating, the lawsuit said. Another had driven two and a half hours in March 2011 to see her nephew’s arraignment in Crisp County but was barred from doing so by officials who told her the nephew didn’t enter a guilty plea, the suit said.