Ever since I took the bench in Loganville, friends, family and acquaintances have asked me if they can come see me in action. I always say yes, and when they ask when, I say whenever there is court. This is usually met with some brand of incredulity. “I can just come whenever?” Yes, yes you can. Georgia has an open access court system, and anyone at any time can come into the courtroom to see what is going on, so long as they don’t provide a disruption or there isn’t some extraordinary circumstance.
In fact, Georgia’s open access laws are more liberal than the federal courts’ laws, and the fact that federal courts may exclude certain people for certain reasons does not apply to access to a courtroom in Georgia. “Georgia law, as we perceive it, regarding the public aspect of hearings in criminal cases is more protective of the concept of open courtrooms than federal law.” R.W. Page Corp. v. Lumpkin, 249 Ga. 576, 578(3), 292 S.E.2d 815 (1982).
This is true even if you want to video or audio record the proceedings. Although there is an application procedure for doing so, there are nine factors which the Court has to consider before denying someone the ability to record the proceedings. Those factors are:
(1) The nature of the particular proceeding at issue;
(2) The consent or objection of the parties or witnesses whose testimony will be presented in the proceedings;
(3) Whether the proposed coverage will promote increased public access to the courts and openness of judicial proceedings;
(4) The impact upon the integrity and dignity of the court;
(5) The impact upon the administration of the court;
(6) The impact upon due process and the truth finding function of the judicial proceeding;
(7) Whether the proposed coverage would contribute to the enhancement of or detract from the ends of justice;
(8) Any special circumstances of the parties, victims, witnesses, or other participants such as the need to protect children or factors involving the safety of participants in the judicial proceeding; and
(9) Any other factors which the court may determine to be important under the circumstances of the case.
OCGA § 15–1–10.1(b).
The Georgia Supreme Court has said that cameras themselves promote and improve access to the courts, and so to prohibit them, the judge had better have a good reason. “’[A]lthough the decision whether to allow electronic and photographic coverage of a trial is within the discretion of the trial court, if a trial court denies such coverage, there must be a factual basis in the record that supports the denial.’ Morris Communications v. Griffin, 279 Ga. 735, 736, 620 S.E.2d 800 (2005). (citation omitted). In light of that policy, we must vacate the trial court’s determination, under factor three, that because proceedings are open to anyone who wants to travel to the courthouse, the proposed coverage would not promote increased public access to the courts and openness of judicial proceedings. ‘A camera generally will increase the openness of a judicial proceeding, and there is nothing in the record in this case to indicate that [McLaurin’s] camera would not have done so.’ Id. at 737, 620 S.E.2d 800.
The more open the doors to the system, the more people have the opportunity to observe and understand the system for themselves, and consequently, the more trust the public will have in the judiciary. This is a noble goal, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of it any time you wish.
The City of Loganville holds court on the first and third Thursdays of every month, as well as the fourth Friday. All court days begin at 9:30 and continue until we are finished. We do not take a lunch break. You are invited at any time.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice or an opinion on how the law applies any one particular situation. Please consult a lawyer for advice on how the law applies to your circumstances.