Award-winning advisory opinion

Between the rules restricting judicial speech and the confidentiality rules for their proceedings, judicial conduct commissions are not usually seen as champions of free speech. But recently, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation gave its 2014 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award to the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission for its 2013 advisory opinion disapproving the systematic exclusion of the public from courtrooms. The staff and members of the Commission were honored at a dinner.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of a criminal conviction because the trial court had excluded the public from voir dire in Presley v. Georgia, the Commission had received requests from “judges for guidance as to how best to ensure compliance with the law regarding public access to judicial proceedings.” The Commission had also received complaints about court staff or sheriff’s deputies excluding the public from courtrooms, court personnel demanding that individuals state their business before being allowed to enter a courtroom, and signs on courtroom doors such as “no children,” “attorneys and defendants only,” or “no guests or family permitted.”

Concluding that those “practices are, generally, improper,” the advisory opinion disapproved the “systematic exclusion of the public by the court.” Georgia Advisory Opinion 239 (2013). (The Georgia Commission is one of 10 conduct commissions that issue advisory opinions to judges as well as investigate complaints against judges; in most states, the two roles are separate.) The Commission explained that “logistical concerns (i.e., too little space, too many cases on the calendar, etc.) . . . cannot be resolved by the blanket exclusion of the public, or a specified class or portion thereof, without violating both the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct.” Acknowledging that many courtrooms lack adequate space, the opinion urged judges “to consider options and alternatives . . . including, but not limited to, viewing rooms, additional seating, smaller calendars, or dividing the docket between morning and afternoon calendars.” (Here is an article about one such courtroom renovation.)

The Commission emphasized that its opinion did not apply to a judge’s decision to close a specific proceeding based on findings made on the record and consistent with the law.

In making the award, the president of the Foundation stated that, “By issuing the opinion, the JQC significantly, and almost immediately, improved public access to court proceedings in Georgia. The commission advanced the cause of government transparency to the benefit of all Georgia citizens.”

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