A win for open court proceedings

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation next week will honor the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission for an opinion that aggressively reinforced the importance of open judicial proceedings in Georgia. Commission staff and members will receive the 2014 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award at a banquet beginning at 6:15 p.m. Thursday at the offices of Kilpatrick Townsend, 1100 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. Tickets are available at $75 per person at www.gfaf.org.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation advances the cause of open government and freedom of information through education and advocacy. Follow GFAF on Twitter and keep up with First Amendment news by liking their facebook page.

The Georgia Court of Appeals issued an important opinion earlier this month in the case of a law student who believed he was improperly denied the right to film Georgia court proceedings. At the heart of the ruling was some encouraging news for citizens: The court strongly reinforced the public’s right to observe and understand court activities.

It’s the second time in several months that corrective action was needed to keep secrecy from creeping into our court systems in Georgia.

It’s hard to imagine a place where the stakes for justice are higher than in our courtrooms. In the most extreme cases, people are literally on trial for their lives. Thousands of cases every day deal with less extreme but equally serious matters: the right to earn a living, protect a business, be compensated for an injury, keep government power in check. Our American tradition considers transparency and public access a key safeguard of courtroom justice. Citizens who can observe and understand the judicial process are more likely to hold our institutions accountable and have confidence in them.

At the heart of Joshua McLaurin’s case was exactly that principle. McLaurin, a UGA and Yale Law School graduate, is interested in documentary filmmaking and decided to mix that interest with his legal studies. He had read and heard about mistreatment of indigent defendants in Georgia’s courts. As a 2013 school summer project, he decided to observe and film proceedings in some rural courtrooms.

In Georgia, news media and others are allowed to film court proceedings under standards that include protecting the rights of defendants and ensuring court proceedings are not disrupted. McLaurin went through proper channels to request permission to film in several courtrooms. He got mixed results.

Some courts allowed the filming, and others did not. The rationale different judges gave varied, and their decisions seemed to be based on whether a student or general member of the public should have the same guarantees to film court proceedings as media have.

By July, McLaurin had seen enough and decided that the next time he was denied the right to film, he would ask the Georgia Court of Appeals to clarify the law. That denial came in Walton County Superior Court on July 15 after a very interesting hearing with Judge John M. Ott.

Judges in Georgia have some discretion in deciding whether to approve cameras in their courtroom. They consider a multi-factor test that weighs the public value of recording the proceedings, the administrative burden, the rights of the defendant and other matters. McLaurin told me Judge Ott was very diligent and appropriate in considering the balancing test and in documenting his thinking so that McLaurin could file his appeal.

But McLaurin was convinced that Ott gave too little weight to the idea that filming court proceedings can increase transparency and knowledge of our judicial systems. McLaurin also believed the judge was too concerned with the idea that the law student did not have the credentials and professional standards a member of the media would have. In his balancing test, Ott cited the administrative burden on the court of ensuring the rights of every defendant and witness on the court calendar that day.

McLaurin, in his appeal of Ott’s ruling, said the judge did not provide the appropriate factual basis needed for denying the law student’s right to film.

Earlier this month, the court of appeals agreed with McLaurin. The appeals court said Ott was correct in considering the administrative burden on the court, but did not give enough balancing weight to the overwhelming preference in Georgia for open judicial proceedings. Though Ott’s courtroom is open to the public, the appeals court found that filming the proceedings there can broaden the audience and increase the transparency of courts — the fundamental reason why filming is generally allowed. The appeals court also stressed that filming in courtrooms is not restricted to professional news media; the right to free speech and expression of opinion afforded to news media is broadly furnished to all citizens.

It’s not the first such victory for citizens recently.

In August 2013, the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission, a body that investigates ethical complaints about judges and courts, issued a very strong opinion reinforcing the principle of open courts in Georgia. The commission wrote in its opinion that it had heard many complaints of closed courtrooms.

“Some complaints involve court staff or sheriffs’ deputies excluding the public,” the commission wrote. “Other complaints involve court personnel demands made on members of the public to state their business prior to being allowed to enter a public courtroom. In some courthouses, signs are posted on the entrance doors to a courtroom that forbid the admittance of a certain class of persons, signs such as ‘no children,’ ‘attorneys and defendants only,’ or ‘no guests or family permitted.’

“All of the above practices are, generally, improper.”

The commission noted that a judge can close a courtroom in special circumstances, but it should not become routine. The opinion also said that judges could be disciplined for failure to follow established law on open courtrooms.

The commission has been criticized by some judges for taking on the issue too aggressively, but the opinion was a clear public service.

So was McLaurin’s challenge in Judge Ott’s courtroom. The ruling in McLaurin’s case kicked the matter back to Judge Ott for reconsideration. Since McLaurin’s summer project is complete and he’s now studying for the bar exam and considering job opportunities, an additional hearing is unlikely. Still, his challenge, and the opinion by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, are likely to have lasting influence on the principle of open and transparent courts in Georgia.

And that’s good news for all of us.