Georgia Supreme Court stays ahead of the pandemic — to the public’s benefit

Justices’ foresight in creating a pandemic plan has kept Georgia courts operational and accessible to the public during COVID-19. We applaud the Georgia Supreme Court’s leadership at our 2020 Weltner event, happening online Oct. 15.

By Peter Canfield and Richard T. Griffiths

Across the country courts have struggled with accommodating public access to court proceedings during the pandemic, but not the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Over a decade ago when then Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears handed junior Justice Harold D. Melton the assignment to come up with a pandemic plan for Georgia’s courts, he admits he was skeptical.

“You know, anybody who is doing work, anything on a daily basis, can think of things that they need to be doing instead of planning for something that may or may not happen,” Melton recalled.

But his views changed when he started working on the pandemic plan.

In 2009, Melton and a volunteer group of lawyers and public health experts completed a 177-page Georgia Pandemic Influenza Bench Guide, updated and revised in 2018, that, this spring, allowed now Chief Justice Melton to act with speed and clarity in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, there was a great deal of panic initially, and it was immeasurably comforting to know that there had been some intentional thought and planning that had taken place out of the panic mode,” Melton said. “It got us going until we could get our COVID sea legs underneath us.”

And that time and planning has allowed the Court to preserve and protect public transparency.  In every emergency order and extension issued since March, Melton and the Court have worked hard to keep Georgia’s courts open and accessible virtually during the COVID-19 emergency, not just for judges, lawyers and litigants, but also for journalists and the public. In contrast to those of other states, the Georgia Supreme Court’s orders permitting judicial business to proceed online have been carefully written to ensure that the public is afforded notice and an opportunity to attend.

That’s in keeping with Georgia judicial tradition.

More than 40 years ago, the Georgia Supreme Court made the state one of the first in the country to permit cameras in its courtrooms.  Then Chief Justice H.E. Nichols reasoned, “Our courts don’t belong to our judges or our lawyers or our litigants. They belong to the people.”

And the Court has reinforced that view in the years since with strong reversals of lower court decisions that sought to close court proceedings and records. “Like a candle,” the Court has said, “court records hidden under a bushel make scant contribution to their purpose.” “This court,” it has explained, “has sought to open the doors of Georgia’s courtrooms to the public and to attract public interest in all courtroom proceedings because it is believed that open courtrooms are a sine qua nonof an effective and respected judicial system which, in turn, is one of the principal cornerstones of a free society.”

Melton channeled this long-standing policy and sentiment this spring by ensuring that as Georgia courts moved to virtual proceedings, the public moved with them. He’s grateful Georgia was prepared, especially because he can recall thinking that the pandemic plan he worked on a decade ago was unlikely to be needed. Melton modestly admits the experience has taught him a valuable lesson.

“I still wonder if I had been in the [then] chief’s spot, would I have taken the initiative to create this commission to plan ahead? And I don’t know that I would have,” Melton said. “I do think it is good for public officials to think about the things that you hope don’t happen.”

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation and its annual Weltner Freedom of Information event are dedicated to applauding those whose work has demonstrated the importance and power of First Amendment principles foundational to our democracy, especially in this unparalleled year.

The Georgia Supreme Court certainly fits that description and will be honored at this year’s Oct. 15 virtual Weltner event as a First Amendment Hero. Unlike a number of other courts across the country, which have found protecting public access now too difficult, the Court has continued to honor in deed the constitutional command recognized by the event’s namesake, the late Chief Justice Charles Weltner, “Because public men and women are amenable ‘at all times’ to the people, they must conduct the public’s business out in the open.”

Peter Canfield is a founding board member and Richard T. Griffiths is president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Register now for GFAF’s annual Weltner Freedom of Information celebration

Attendees to our virtual event will participate in our tribute to First Amendment heroes, preview the foundation’s legislative agenda and gain exclusive access to a bonus training event on law enforcement and the First Amendment.

Join the Georgia First Amendment Foundation for our virtual 2020 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information event from 1-2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

REGISTER NOW

Our 19th annual Weltner event will commemorate how First Amendment rights have helped shape this unprecedented year. We also will look ahead to our legislative agenda and initiatives to protect and expand government transparency, accountability journalism and free speech in Georgia in 2021 and beyond.

Commemorating this year’s First Amendment heroes

In a break from tradition, we are not naming a 2020 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information honoree because of the unparalleled circumstances of the pandemic. Instead, we are applauding those whose work has demonstrated the importance and power of First Amendment principles that are foundational to our democracy, particularly in this challenging year. During our virtual event, we will recognize as 2020 First Amendment heroes:

  • The Supreme Court of Georgia for vision, preparation and leadership that have allowed courts in our state to remain operational and open to the public during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • The late state Rep. Jay Powell for ushering an expansion of Georgia’s Sunshine Laws through the General Assembly in 2012. The resulting laws improved citizens’ access to their government and established a legal framework for the virtual public meetings that have become so essential this year.
  • Nineteen-year-old community organizer and activist Zoe Bambara, who leveraged our right “peaceably to assemble” by helping organize protests in late May calling for an end to police brutality and discrimination. The protests raised awareness and sparked change; two months later, Georgia’s first hate crimes law took effect.

We also will preview the foundation’s legislative agenda for the 2021 General Assembly session; celebrate the life and legacy of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a former Weltner Award honoree; and pay tribute to long-serving foundation member Tom Budlong, who died this year.

In addition, we’ll auction a one-of-a-kind cartoon from Pulitzer Prize-winning Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich — framed and ready to hang on your wall.

Bonus training event: Law Enforcement and the First Amendment

Recordings of police activities have become catalysts for change. How does the First Amendment protect citizens’ right to record police on the job? What rights do the public and the media have to access video from officer body cams and other official sources? What are the rules of non-engagement when journalists and citizens record police in action? How do free speech rights come into play in encounters between the public and police? On the panel:

  • Vic Reynolds, Director, Georgia Bureau of Investigation
  • Zoe Bambara, Community Organizer & Activist
  • Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, First Amendment Attorney, Caplan Cobb LLP
  • Clare Norins, Director, First Amendment Clinic, UGA School of Law
  • Gerry Weber, First Amendment Attorney, Gerry Weber LLC and Southern Center for Human Rights

Register now for this free hour-long training event at 1 p.m. on Oct. 9.

Your support matters more than ever

Our annual Weltner event is the greatest source of regular financial support for the foundation. 2020 has highlighted the crucial role our organization plays in protecting and expanding the public’s right to know in Georgia. We’ve educated elected officials on keeping meetings accessible to the public during the pandemic. We’ve pushed for greater transparency in public health data. We have helped journalists understand their rights when covering protests. And we have called for police departments across the state to adopt Citizens’ Right to Record policies.

This is all possible because of backing from our members and donors. Here are three ways you can support the foundation today:

  1. GFAF members have free access to both our Weltner celebration on Oct. 15 and our Law Enforcement and the First Amendment training event on Oct. 9. Become a member.
  2. Buy a $50 ticket to our 2020 Weltner event and also receive free access to the Oct. 9 training session.
  3. Donate to support our work to protect and expand Georgians’ right to know.

We look forward to seeing you online for our 2020 Weltner events!

RECAP: Deciphering public health data about COVID-19

Courtesy of the AJC

Watch a video of our June 25 virtual discussion on how to access and interpret public health data about the coronavirus pandemic in Georgia. Our panel of experts talked about the accuracy of COVID-19 public health data and explained what it tells us about case counts, deaths, hospitalizations and rolling averages. They defined the difference between a verifiable trend and a momentary blip. Find out how to decipher the data so you can make informed health decisions.

Panelists:

Ben Lopman, Epidemiologist, Emory University Rollins School of Public Health

Willoughby Mariano, Reporter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Andy Miller, CEO and Editor, Georgia Health News

Moderator: Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

  • Read Georgia Public Broadcasting’s coverage, Experts: Georgia’s data on COVID-19 seems lacking.
  • Check out the AJC’s coronavirus dashboard for the latest data on the pandemic in Georgia.
  • Go to Georgia Health News for stories about how the disease is affecting our health care system and our communities.
  • Dive deeper into Lopman’s research on how COVID-19 is transmitted and whether shield immunity, the presumed immunity of people who have recovered from an infection, could let workers in high-contact jobs like health care safely return to work.

Want to learn more about why access to reliable data is critical now? Read Recalibrating the balance: Increasing transparency around COVID-19 while still respecting privacy.

Donors pledge more than $136,000 in great show of support for the foundation’s open government mission

Contributions announced at Oct. 17 Weltner Award Banquet will help educate Georgians on the public’s right to access public documents, meetings and proceedings.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation has received pledges, sponsorships and individual donations adding up to more than $136,000 — a robust display of support for protecting and expanding open government in our state.

Cobb Judge James Bodiford, with Jim Zachary (L) and Amelia Weltner

The funds were contributed in conjunction with the foundation’s annual Weltner Award Banquet on Oct. 17. The banquet, which honored Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford, was one of the nonprofit’s most successful fundraisers ever, attracting more than 120 attendees and 11 event sponsors.

During the banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News announced an $80,000 donation that the foundation will use to provide open government training across Georgia.

In addition, the Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced a generous donation through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management. The university will provide $10,000 to update the foundation’s popular open government guidebooks. The Georgia Press Association also is contributing $1,000 toward the guidebook revisions.

“In a time when trust in government is at all time lows, transparency is one of the best tools for building trust,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors. “We intend for these funds to be used to provide training in Atlanta and throughout the state for the public, journalists and government officials. That means, in particular, we will be in a position to help the City of Atlanta as it builds out its extraordinary openness initiative.”

Donation emerges from settlement with city

The AJC, Channel 2 and the City of Atlanta recently settled a complaint that the newsrooms filed in April with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. The complaint alleged “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor, Kasim Reed. Under terms of the settlement, the city council and new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms agreed to take substantial steps to increase transparency and also to pay the news organizations $80,000 as partial reimbursement of legal fees. That settlement money will fund the news organizations’ donation to the foundation.

Alex Taylor, chief executive officer of Cox Enterprises, parent company of the news outlets, said in a statement, “We couldn’t be more proud of the team at WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its watchdog reporting on this incredibly important matter and proving, once again, that local journalism matters.

“The First Amendment and state laws such as the Georgia Open Records Act are essential to our democracy and freedom as citizens because they enable us to see how our government works,” Taylor said. “We support the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in its mission to hold our public officials accountable and demand transparency in government.”

Honoring commitment to courtroom access

At the banquet, Bodiford accepted the foundation’s 2018 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award, making him the 17th honoree to receive the award. It was presented by Amelia Weltner, granddaughter of the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency for whom the award is named.

The foundation recognized Bodiford for his 30-year commitment to protecting the public’s right to courtroom access. The Cobb senior judge kept his courtroom open while presiding over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases.

In his keynote speech, Bodiford encouraged other judges to remember that the judicial system needs “the confidence of the public” to succeed. “The more they know, the better they’ll feel about it,” he said.

>>> Watch WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News report, read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s article about the donation and check out the Daily Report’s coverage of the foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet.

How to get the public information you want: Guidance from an elected official

By Lisa Cupid

One area where my positions as a citizen and an elected official fully align is in my support for government transparency. Transparency helps citizens get information they need, and it also helps elected officials get out information about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why.

Lisa Cupid

The process of transparency is often adversarial. Instead of citizens and elected officials working together to get to the bottom of a matter, transparency is often hampered by a presumption of conflict that gets everyone off on the wrong foot. Requesters of information may think that elected leaders always have something to hide. Elected officials and even government staff may be frustrated by requests that seem too broad or seem to make demands without regard for courtesy.

Let me be clear: Information that is accessible to the public under Georgia law and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution must be provided by government entities without exception. Even if the request is broad or demanding. Still, if you are a citizen or journalist making a request, the way you ask for information can actually improve the likelihood of getting relevant information as soon as possible.

___________________________________________________________

Watch a video of Commissioner Cupid discussing the importance of good communication when seeking public information.

___________________________________________________________

So, what’s behind our transparency process problem? In my experience, there are a few causes.

There might truly be bad intent on behalf of those requesting information or those with a desire to withhold it. But this is actually the least common of all the causes I’ve witnessed.

  • More often, a request for information might take a long path to the right source. As an elected official, I often get requests for information from constituents, and while I am happy to help them, the quickest route would be to for them to walk into or call the county clerk’s office. Making the request of those closest to the documentation will almost always yield a more thorough and faster response.
  • A problem with transparency also might be caused by a downright lack of knowledge about the law. Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act are long and complex. That’s why the Georgia First Amendment Foundation produces a citizen’s guide to the state’s Sunshine Laws. Even though I am a foundation board member, lawyer and two-term elected official, I have found myself in the awkward position of not knowing that an action taken by the board of commissioners was in violation of the Open Meetings Act. I’m confident many other public officials have had the same experience.
  • By far, most transparency issues emerge from miscommunication or from challenging exchanges between those seeking information and those charged with providing it.

So, what can we do to smooth and simplify the flow of public information?

If you are a citizen or journalist, ask for help — not just in receiving information, but also in how to ask for it clearly and concisely. Go to the clerk’s office, email the planning department, call the staff person who administers a program in which you are interested. Tell them what you would like to know and ask for guidance on the most efficient way to get that information. Most of us in public service feel we are called to help. Requests framed with that understanding appeal to the very core of why we are in our respective positions: to serve the public good.

Become versed in Georgia’s open government laws so you can identify whether access to information is being intentionally or ignorantly subverted. Check out the foundation’s tips for requesting public information, as well as our Red Book, A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government, mentioned above. In addition, look for opportunities for in-person training; our foundation experts lead or participate in several government transparency training sessions throughout the year. If you don’t already receive our training schedules and updates, email us at info@gfaf.org and ask to be added to the list.

If you are a government employee or elected official, seek out information and training sessions — including refresher courses — to ensure you understand transparency laws and have current knowledge. Again, the foundation is a great resource. Check out not only the Red Book, but also the Blue Book, Georgia Law Enforcement and the Open Records Act. The foundation provides in-person open government training to agencies, as well; email us at info@gfaf.org to learn more.

In today’s climate of political contentiousness and “fake” news, it can be wise to go to the original source of public information. The foundation’s efforts help support a free flow of facts that creates more informed citizens and more engaged and responsive elected officials. Whether you’re an interested citizen, an elected official — or, as in my case, both — that is help we all can benefit from.

Lisa N. Cupid, a GFAF board member, is an attorney and a Cobb County commissioner representing District 4.

Register now: GFAF Legislative Breakfast, Feb. 1

Join us for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual Legislative Breakfast, where public officials, newsmakers and members of the media will join in a discussion of open government issues emerging in the 2018 session.

2018 GFAF Legislative Breakfast

Co-sponsored by the GSU Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild

7:30-9 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 1

Georgia State University College of Law • Knowles Conference Center

85 Park Place NE • Atlanta, GA 30303

The event is free for members and $10 for nonmembers. Register now. 

Panelists:

  • State Rep. Wendell Willard, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid
  • CNN Executive Editor Samira Jafari
  • First Amendment Attorney Tom Clyde of Kilpatrick Townsend
  • First Amendment Attorney Peter Canfield of Jones Day (moderator)

Among topics for discussion: courtroom recordings, police body camera videos, electronic court filings, judicial watchdog transparency and more.

The GSU College of Law is at the corner of John Wesley Dobbs Avenue and Park Place in downtown Atlanta. Visitor parking is available for $7 in Deck M (entrance on Auditorium Place). Also just a block from Marta’s Peachtree Center Station. Detailed directions can be found at http://knowlescenter.law.gsu.edu/contact-us/

 

Special rate for 2017 Weltner Banquet

Join us Oct. 19 to celebrate and support the public’s right to know.

We appreciate your support of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s open government mission. To show our appreciation, we’re inviting you to join us Oct. 19 at the 2017 Weltner Freedom of Information Award Banquet at a special Friends of the First Amendment rate of $100 — a 60 percent discount off our regular individual ticket rate.

It’s unusual for us to offer a special rate for individual tickets to our Weltner Banquet, the foundation’s most important fundraising event. But as we mark the banquet’s 16th anniversary this year, the time is right. Over the past two years, and particularly in just the last few months, we’ve drawn interest from many more individual supporters. We want to make it possible for anyone who believes in our mission to join us for this annual celebration of open government successes — and to invest in our ongoing fight for government transparency and free speech.

You’ll find our Oct. 19 banquet inspiring. We are presenting the 2017 Weltner Award to the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program. Program Director Laura Neuman, our keynote speaker, will tell us how access to public information is transforming citizens’ lives worldwide. She will be introduced by Carter Center Chief Executive Officer Mary Ann Peters, former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.

We’re also honoring the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis with our Open Government Hero Award. Manis, who died in December, was an unwavering advocate of open records and open meetings and proceedings during her years in the Office of the Georgia Attorney General and on the bench. U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen will offer a tribute to Manis, his longtime friend and former colleague.

The banquet takes place at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 19, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. Citizens, elected officials, journalists, judges, attorneys, members of the foundation’s board of directors and other First Amendment advocates will be there to celebrate and support the foundation’s crucial and narrow mission. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is the state’s only organization completely committed to the public’s right to know.

Secure your seat by buying a Weltner Banquet ticket today. Or, if you can’t join us at the event, make a donation to support our open government mission. We cannot do this important work without you.

For information about becoming a 2017 Weltner sponsor, please call Lenora Kopkin 678-395-3618 or email info@gfaf.org.

SAVE THE DATE: Weltner Freedom of Information Award Banquet, Oct. 19

Event to honor the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program and the late Judge Stephanie B. Manis of Fulton County Superior Court.

The Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program works to improve governance and transform citizens’ lives worldwide by providing governments with actionable advice and technical assistance that increase transparency and help citizens exercise their fundamental right to information. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is honoring that important work by naming the Atlanta-based program as recipient of the 2017 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award.

The foundation also is honoring the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis with its Open Government Hero Award. Manis, who died in December, was an unwavering advocate of open records and open meetings during her years in the Office of the Georgia Attorney General and on the bench.

Both awards will be presented during the foundation’s annual Weltner evening banquet on Oct. 19 at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

Laura Neuman, director of the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program, will accept the Weltner Freedom of Information Award and serve as the event’s keynote speaker. Manis’ family will accept the Open Government Hero Award in her honor.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Freedom of Information Award is named for Charles L. Weltner, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who championed freedom of information and ethics in state government. The annual Weltner Banquet provides financial support for the foundation’s narrow and essential mission: fighting for free speech, government transparency and access to public information in Georgia.

For information about becoming a 2017 banquet sponsor, please email info@gfaf.org.

Invest in the First Amendment—become a Weltner Banquet sponsor today

Reserve space now for the Weltner Freedom of Information Award Banquet, Oct. 19.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual Weltner Banquet is the greatest source of financial support for our narrow and essential mission: fighting for free speech, government transparency and access to public information in Georgia.

This year’s event, scheduled at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 19, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, will honor the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program and the late Judge Stephanie B. Manis of Fulton County Superior Court.

Welter sponsorships are at four levels:

  • Platinum—at least 8 tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full page in the program; all benefits of being an institutional GFAF member, including legislative updates and one complimentary open government workshop for your organization or company, $10,000.
  • Gold—8 tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full page in the program, $5,000.
  • Silver—6 tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage, and a half-page in the program, $2,500.
  • Bronze—4 tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage and a quarter-page in the program, $1,500.

For information about becoming a 2017 Weltner sponsor, please call Lenora Kopkin 678-395-3618 or email info@gfaf.org.

The Weltner Banquet and the foundation’s annual Freedom of Information Award are named for Charles L. Weltner, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who championed freedom of information and ethics in state government. Honorees reflect his commitment to open, transparent government.

The 2017 Weltner Award honoree is the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program, which works to improve governance and transform citizens’ lives worldwide by providing governments with actionable advice and technical assistance that increase transparency and help citizens exercise their fundamental right to information.

The foundation also is honoring the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis with its Open Government Hero Award. Manis, who died in December, was an unwavering advocate of open records and open meetings during her years in the Office of the Georgia Attorney General and on the bench.

Both awards will be presented during the Weltner Banquet. Laura Neuman, director of the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program, will accept the Weltner Freedom of Information Award and serve as the event’s keynote speaker. Manis’ family will accept the Open Government Hero Award in her honor.

Join us in celebrating Hollie Manheimer

Twenty one years of fighting for the public’s right to know

Foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer is stepping down from her post after 21 years of dedicated service to preserving and expanding Georgians’ rights to open government and free speech.

Hollie’s not leaving GFAF—she’ll stay on as a volunteer for the organization that she has, in her words, “grown up with.” But it’s time to celebrate her past successes and look ahead to the future. Please join us:

6-8 p.m. • May 23, 2017

Atlanta Lawyer’s Club

1230 Peachtree Street NE • Promenade Building, Suite 3850

Atlanta, Georgia 30309

Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres

Requested donation of $50 per person

RSVP required • Attendance is limited • REGISTER NOW

If you are unable to donate, email info@gfaf.org for registration

Donations fund education and advocacy for open government.