Weltner FOI Banquet Honors JQC for Open Court Opinion

ATLANTA – The Georgia First Amendment Foundation this year gave the Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award to the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

The staff and members of the commission were honored at a dinner on Thursday June 26, 2014, at the law offices of Kilpatrick Townsend. A number of current and former Georgia Supreme Court justices, legislators, congressmen and judges were among more than 120 who turned out for the dinner. Former Gov. Roy Barnes introduced a special video produced by WAGA’s Dale Russell about the commission’s work.

The keynote speaker was David Vigilante, the chief editorial counsel for Cable News Network’s worldwide operations. He discussed the use of unmanned aerial vehicles  (aka drones) and other emerging technologies in newsgathering.   

The JQC acted in the best traditions of former Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner when, on Aug. 18, 2013, it issued Opinion 239 which aggressively reinforced the importance of open judicial proceedings in Georgia.

The opinion stated: “We are charged with enforcing the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon 2 provides that ‘Judges shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.’ Accordingly, judges who do not adhere to the open courtroom principles outlined in Presley (v. Georgia) may be in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, as well as the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Georgia.”

“By issuing the opinion, the JQC significantly, and almost immediately, improved public access to court proceedings in Georgia,” said Foundation President Hyde Post. “The commission advanced the cause of government transparency to the benefit of all Georgia citizens.”

To commemorate that work, which is so in keeping with Weltner’s ideals, the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation chose to give the 2014 Weltner Award to the members and staff of the JQC.

Being honored are current JQC members Robert D. Ingram, a Marietta attorney; S. Lester Tate, a Cartersville attorney; Linda Evans, an Atlanta civic leader; James B. Franklin, a Statesboro attorney; Fulton County State Court Judge Patsy Y. Porter, and Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda S. Weaver, and staff Director Jeffrey R. Davis, Chief Investigator Richard L. Hyde, and Executive Assistant Tara R. Moon. Also being honored are former JQC members who were on the commission when the opinion was drafted: retired Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen and Jim Durham, a Brunswick attorney.

This year’s banquet also included an update on the 2014 Legislature and “shout outs” to a number of legislators and citizens who have had a favorable impact on open government in Georgia. GFAF’s Hollie Manheimer and board member Tom Clyde recognized the work of Rep. Wendell Willard, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver and Rep Christian Coomer for their legislative work on behalf of government transparency. They also recognized the Southern Center for Human Rights and attorney Gerry Weber for their work to advance courtroom access; they recognized David Schick and his attorney David Levitas for his investigative work and use of open records laws in an investigation of financial shortfalls at Georgia Perimeter College; and they recognized Joshua McLaurin, a Yale Law School student whose effort to videotape criminal cases while a student ultimately led to a Georgia appellate decision enhancing camera access in Georgia courtrooms.

GFAF, now in its 20th year, has worked closely with the Georgia Attorney General’s office, statewide county government, and judicial, educational and law enforcement organizations on training and education concerning Georgia’s open meetings and records laws.

Georgia’s former Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein was the recipient of the 2013 award. Other recent winners have included GBI Director Vernon Keenan; Congressman John Lewis; Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoonist Mike Luckovich;  former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, former Attorney General Michael Bowers and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reporter Jim Houston. Recipients also have included Eason Jordan, former CNN newsgathering chief executive; Thurbert Baker, former Attorney General of Georgia; former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes; former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher; U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson; and U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob.