Update: Proposed rule change could restrict access to Georgia courts

Council of Superior Court Judges to vote by Wednesday on whether to curb electronics in courtrooms.

Georgia courts are one step closer to becoming less accessible to the public.

On Monday, at a meeting on St. Simons Island, members of the uniform rules committee of a state judicial council voted to embrace rule changes that would presumptively restrict the use of laptop computers, smartphones and other portable electronic devices in courtrooms statewide.

The likely effect: a less welcoming environment for anyone, other than a lawyer, who wants to use phones or other electronic devices in the courtroom — even if the devices would not disrupt proceedings.

The proposed change to the so-called “Rule 22” is expected to go before the full Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia by Wednesday for a final vote, according to council staff. Approval is anticipated.

Rule 22 covers electronic and photographic recording of judicial proceedings. It 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. For example, if revised as proposed, the rule would presumptively ban non-lawyers from using a computer to take notes or to silently send and receive texts or emails in the courtroom.

The existing practice in Georgia and other states encourages 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 complicate citizen access to courtrooms. At Monday’s meeting, foundation board member Hyde Post explained the foundation’s concerns about the proposed rule changes and argued in favor of the presumption that silent use of electronic devices should be permitted.

“In other states, they have accepted evolving communications technology as a given,” Post said. “They have suggested that to try and ban electronics use wastes a lot of the courts’ energy on policing and ultimately will fail as policy. Instead, judges in these states, like Utah, start with the premise that a person should be permitted to silently use an electronic device in the courtroom. If a judge perceives a problem, the judge has the authority to restrict that usage if he or she deems it would disrupt the proceedings, interfere with administration of justice, cause security problems and so forth.”

Following this model, under the foundation’s proposal, 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.”

Several judges at the committee hearing expressed particular concern about citizens’ smartphone use in the courtroom. Judges recounted anecdotes in which gang members filmed witnesses in court. The videos were posted online and those witnesses were threatened or assaulted, the judges said.

Committee members contended that a presumptive ban on the use of electronic devices would enable better management of courtrooms. If someone wanted to bring a laptop or other electronic device to use in the courtroom, they might be permitted to use it, but they would need to file a Rule 22 request first.

Media contact:

Kathy Brister, board member, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

kathybrister@yahoo.com / 404-394-6103