Georgia: the land of misfit idiots and backward logic and a seemingly endless stream of opposite days. Georgia: a State whose official fruit is sweet to the taste but rotten to the core. Georgia: the only State to get its own category on this blog. Georgia: the State where public courtrooms apparently mean private courtrooms. At least in Massachusetts they don’t intentionally close courtrooms to the public.
Ben Hill and Crisp County operate Law Enforcement Centers [hereinafter “LECs”]. LECs contain each county’s jail and a courtroom to hold Superior Court criminal and juvenile delinquency proceedings. Pretrial detainees in the LEC jails appear in the LEC courtrooms for pretrial hearings, which include bond hearings, arraignments, calendar calls, and other criminal matters. Because many of the LEC pretrial detainees plead guilty and are sentenced at the LECs, the LEC courtrooms are often the only courtrooms they see.
Relatively speaking, the LEC courtrooms are not large. The Ben Hill County LEC courtroom has about thirty seats. The court reserves four to six seats for criminal defendants who appear before the court. A partition separates those seats from the remaining twenty-four seats. The Crisp County LEC courtroom has about twenty-five seats. Sheriff deputies place pretrial detainees in two rows of those seats, which apparently leaves about five seats available to the public.
Putting aside the problem I have with having defendants plead guilty on their dates of arraignment for a moment, this isn’t an issue of space. And even if it were, so what?
Family members and regular members of the public were apparently routinely denied access to the courtroom, despite a similar 2003 lawsuit that was dismissed because these very counties promised not to obstruct public access. And this is why consent decrees are useless.
When she arrived, a sheriff’s deputy told her she could not enter the courtroom until the judge called her grandson’s case. Ultimately, the deputy never allowed Hall to enter any of her grandson’s hearings, despite available seating.
Likewise, Plaintiff Beverly Fuqua tried, on three occasions in early 2012, to attend her son’s court appearances at the Ben Hill County LEC. Each time, the bailiff prevented her entry because her son did not plead guilty. She was not allowed to see any hearings.
On March 15, 2011, Plaintiff Joy Scales and her sister drove two and a half hours to see her nephew’s arraignment at the Crisp County LEC. After waiting in the lobby for several hours, she was prevented from watching her nephew’s hearing because he did not enter a guilty plea.
And on and on. The Counties argued that there was no formal “closure” of the courtroom and so the First Amendment was not implicated. In other words, that a court has to order the courtroom closed in order to trigger Constitutional protections. As we know from the discussion of the relevant caselaw in the Mass. post above, that’s not true. In dispensing with the Counties’ motion to dismiss, Judge Sands of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia made it clear [PDF]:
It is no answer to say that there were space limitations and Defendants could not accommodate everyone. This is a motion to dismiss, so the Court takes Plaintiffs allegations as true. The complaint shows that the court and bailiffs required every member of the public to identify himself or herself and only family members were allowed in, for sole purpose of briefly watching their relatives’ guilty pleas, regardless if more seats were available. Defendants make no attempt to refute Plaintiffs’ basic allegations that no one is free to enter the LEC courtrooms without permission and that many people never successfully gain entrance.
Defendant-Judges’ argument that the First Amendment right of access requires a “court order” (Doc. 9-1 at 9) is also unpersuasive. The allegations state that the judges ordered the bailiffs to close all hearings to the public, except in limited circumstances. Superior Court officers, for example, prevented Carl Ringgold from entering the proceedings without approval from the presiding Superior Court judge. (Doc. 1 ¶ 27(f).) The fact that the judges did not explicitly put the order on the record does not absolve the alleged conduct of a First Amendment violation. Such a requirement would render the First Amendment’s right of access a mere formality.
You can get access to other documents from the Southern Center for Human Rights’ press release.
Listen, Georgia, you don’t mind if we take a look, right? I mean, after all, why would you care about open access if you had nothing to hide?