Proposed rule change could restrict access to Georgia courts

Judicial council to meet Monday on citizen use of electronics in courtrooms.

July 20, 2017—A statewide judicial council is scheduled to meet Monday to consider a rule change that could result in less public access to courtrooms.

The Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia is meeting on St. Simons Island to evaluate proposed amendments to so-called “Rule 22.”

No texts or emails in Georgia courtrooms?

Rule 22 — officially “Uniform Superior Court Rule 22: Electronic and Photographic Recording of Judicial Proceedings”— was enacted in 1985, when Georgia was at the forefront of efforts to make court proceedings and records more open to the public.

Back then, Rule 22 was hailed as a model for how to encourage effective radio and television coverage of state proceedings. But the rule was last updated decades ago, before technology advancements led to the development of smartphones and other camera-equipped portable electronic devices now in the hands of most citizens.

In seeking to update the rule, the council has said it aims to establish a procedure for all citizens, not just the media, to request permission to record judicial proceedings. But some of the proposed changes to Rule 22 would take Georgia courts in the other direction, making them less welcoming to the public by restricting anyone other than lawyers from using phones or other electronic devices in the courtroom, even if the devices would not disrupt proceedings. For example, if revised as proposed, the rule would ban non-lawyers from using a computer to take notes or to silently send and receive texts or emails in the courtroom.

That’s contrary to the existing practice in Georgia and other states of encouraging judges to manage proceedings in ways that best serve the public interest and open government. In a number of states silent and non-disruptive use of electronic devices in courtrooms is expressly permitted.

In June, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation submitted an alternative proposal that would update the rule but not deter citizen access to courtrooms. Under the foundation’s proposal, silent use of portable electronic devices inside a courtroom would be presumptively permitted.

Judges could make exceptions, but only “as appropriate to maintain safety, decorum and order, and protect the integrity of the proceedings.” The judge would be required to “bear in mind the state’s longstanding policy favoring open judicial proceedings and anticipate that reporters and other public observers seated in the courtroom may properly use such devices to prepare and post online accounts and commentary during the proceedings.”

In submitting the foundation’s proposal, foundation board member and First Amendment attorney Peter Canfield told the council that the alternative proposal would make the rules “clearer and simpler” and ensure that they “serve, rather than conflict with, the state’s strong public policy in favor of open government.”

Media contact:

Kathy Brister, board member, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

kathybrister@yahoo.com / 404-394-6103