Superior Court judges approve rule change that narrows electronics use in courtrooms

Georgia Supreme Court still has say over whether change to ‘Rule 22’ will take effect.

The Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia has approved a change that would keep existing protocols for news cameras in courtrooms, but make it harder to type, text and tweet during proceedings.

At a Wednesday meeting on St. Simons Island, the council voted to change the so-called “Rule 22” to presumptively restrict the use of laptop computers, smartphones and other portable electronics in Superior Court courtrooms statewide. The rule change would create 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.

To be clear: The rule change would not alter how news cameras may be used in Superior Court. To shoot video today, a journalist must request permission under the existing Rule 22, which covers electronic and photographic recording of judicial proceedings. What would change for journalists — and citizens — is the ability to use an electronic device to take notes, send updates or even look at emails without first obtaining judicial permission.

“The new rule ostensibly recognizes changes in technology that could jeopardize the fairness of judicial proceedings, but in reality it just makes the courts less open,” reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Chris Joyner.

But, as Joyner wrote, the rule change isn’t a done deal. The Georgia Supreme Court still must approve the rule change and has the authority to “change the rule or send it back,” Jane Hansen, spokeswoman for the state’s high court, told the AJC. The process doesn’t have a firm timeline. “It will be over when this court says, ‘Here’s the rule,’” Hansen said.

Rule 22 was put in place 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 journalists and citizens.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation opposes the Council of Superior Court Judges’ rule change. In June, the foundation submitted an alternative proposal that would update the rule but not complicate citizen access to courtrooms. On Monday, foundation board member Hyde Post attended a Council of Superior Court Judges committee meeting in St. Simons to explain the foundation’s concerns. He argued in favor of the presumption that silent use of electronic devices should be permitted in Georgia Superior Court courtrooms.

As the state Supreme Court evaluates the change to Rule 22, the foundation will continue to advocate for unimpeded public access to Georgia courtrooms and proceedings.