Government transparency takes a hit in Georgia’s 2018 legislative session

Three key bills restricting access to public information set to become law July 1, 2018.

The General Assembly session was a busy one, and that was not a positive for government transparency. Many of the bills the Georgia First Amendment Foundation opposed were approved by lawmakers and now await Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature.

Legislation to shield information on lottery winners receiving more than $250,000 in state money got lawmakers’ OK. It sets a dangerous precedent.

A criminal justice reform bill significantly expands the mechanisms by which trial courts can seal court records and conceal criminal histories.

Information about foster parents can be redacted from Georgia Department of Human Services records under a bill that adds an unnecessary exemption to the Open Records Act. The measure shields information on individuals chosen by DHS to serve as foster parents.

Get a full review of all the bills we tracked and how they fared in our post-session Legislative Watch.

E-filing bill will delay public access to court records

Proposal tacked onto governor’s bill could be rushed to a vote on Tuesday.

An electronic-filing proposal that would jeopardize public access to court records in Georgia has found new life. The proposal died in a legislative conference committee last year, but it now has been added to the governor’s criminal justice reform bill and could be voted on by lawmakers as soon as Tuesday.

As it stands, the e-filing proposal — which was introduced as House Bill 15 and now is embedded into Senate Bill 407 — would substantially delay public access to electronically filed court records. That’s because it requires access upon “physical acceptance” by clerks, rather than immediately upon filing, which is current law.

“In the most technologically advanced courts, this change to the acceptance standard would regularly delay public access for days. In less efficient courts, the delay would be much longer. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation believes such delays violate the federal Constitution, and a recent decision in a federal court in Chicago supports our opinion,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors.

The problems with the bill would be relatively simple to fix. The foundation has suggested changes that would better align with the rights Georgians currently have to view court records as soon as they are filed.

“The e-filing provision must be carefully considered and improved to ensure timely access to court records,” Griffiths said. “This is a pretty easy fix. We urge lawmakers to make sure the public’s right to know does not fall victim to the General Assembly’s end-of-session rush.”

Please email media inquiries to info@gfaf.org.

Legislative Watch update: Transparency threats still alive under the Gold Dome

Two bills rated “negative” by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation continue to make their way through the Georgia General Assembly.

Senate Bill 331 would allow lottery winners to remain confidential upon request. The foundation opposes this proposed legislation, which would shield information on individuals receiving significant sums of state money. It would set a dangerous precedent, despite a recent amendment to limit anonymity to winners of over $250,000. We see no way to improve this flawed bill.

Senate Bill 407 would broaden the ability of trial courts to retroactively seal court records of criminal defendants sentenced under the First Offender Act. It’s part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s multi-year legislative package to reform the Georgia criminal justice system. While many of those reforms have been positive, this proposed legislation takes a wrong step toward less transparency. The bill could be improved by aligning it with other criminal reform legislation that gives trial courts discretion to consider the public interest of criminal court records when deciding whether to seal them.

Get more details on these legislative proposals and several others we’re tracking in our updated Legislative Watch.

Updated 2018 Legislative Watch tracks lottery bill and other transparency issues

A bill that would allow lottery winners to remain confidential gets a negative rating on our updated Legislative Watch of bills making their way through the Georgia General Assembly.

Senate Bill 331 would shield information on people receiving significant sums of state money. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation believes the proposal, if successful, would set a dangerous precedent. We see no potential improvements that would remedy this bill.

Other legislative measures we’re watching include Senate Bill 407, which would broaden the ability of trial courts to retroactively seal court records of criminal defendants sentenced under the First Offender Act. House Bill 716 would allow police to make a pre-arrest diversion for drug and mental health treatment; it is unclear whether there would be any public record of this exercise of police power. We have a negative view of both these bills, as well.

Get more details on these proposals and several others we’re tracking in our full Legislative Watch. Plus, see why the foundation believes the secrecy surrounding Georgia’s bid for Amazon keeps taxpayers in the dark about how the state is spending their money to woo business.

Atlanta mayor to address 1st Amendment conference co-sponsored by the foundation

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will be the keynote speaker at the Feb. 23 Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary Conference focused on First Amendment issues and government transparency.

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Bottoms, who participated in the conference as a candidate last year and took office Jan. 2, is expected to address her administration’s perspective on government openness and accessibility to citizens and the media.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is a co-sponsor of the conference, scheduled 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 23, at the State Bar of Georgia Conference Center, 104 Marietta St. NW in downtown Atlanta. The annual gathering, in its 27th year, draws judges, attorneys, journalists and citizens. On the agenda:

  • A discussion of changes ahead for the Georgia Supreme Court and the state’s judicial system. Panelists will include Presiding Justice Harold Melton and retired Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, among others.
  • A forum of candidates in the race for the governor’s office.
  • A conversation with U.S. Supreme Court experts and advocates on how gerrymandering and other First Amendment issues are likely to fare in the Court this term — and the possible ramifications for Georgia.
  • An exploration of cultural challenges to the First Amendment emerging from generational changes, the power of “fake news” and more.
  • Scenarios of how sexual harassment claims could play out in companies, courts and the halls of government in Georgia.

In addition, Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind” host Bill Nigut and his team of pundits and prognosticators will talk politics in a session broadcast live from the conference.

Find the complete agenda, a full list of sponsors and registration information at http://www.iclega.org/programs/9778.html. The fee for non-lawyers is $25. Attorneys may register in advance for $155 or at the door for $230; attorneys will receive continuing legal education (CLE) hours for attending. The admission fee includes lunch and parking.

2018 bills we’re watching now

We’re tracking government transparency legislation as the 2018 General Assembly picks up this month, and here are some of the most important ones we’re watching, both good and bad. Click here to read our full track list.

SB 331 –  This bill would shield information on lottery winners receiving significant sums of state money.

SB 311 -This bill appears to be a well-intentioned effort to allow public access to courtroom recordings made by court reporters, but it sweeps too broadly and would make all court records subject to the Open Records Act and, therefore, the Act’s exemptions, fees and time requirements.

HB 15 – The original bill required electronic filing of most civil court records, but contained no provision to protect public access to such filings in a timely way, either at the courthouse or electronically. Instead, it arguably made court records subject to the Open Records Act, the three-day waiting option and the Act’s exemptions.

GFAF’s Legislative Watch: Bad bills and unintended consequences

By Tom Clyde

Protecting Georgians’ right to know about their government requires particular diligence this time of year. The General Assembly is in session.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s mission to watch for and fight against any legislative reduction in the public’s access to government records, meetings and proceedings is one of our most important responsibilities. But the job is not easy. Bad legislation comes in many forms.

Sometimes it looks like Senate Bill 331, which proposes letting the Georgia Lottery Corporation keep the identity of lottery winners secret forever. Clearly, letting a government agency hand out millions of dollars to private citizens with no public record is a bad idea.

More often, however, a bill’s negative impact on transparency is not readily apparent. In good faith, a lawmaker may propose legislation without even anticipating how it could erode government transparency. These are the situations in which the foundation’s 24 years of experience encouraging greater transparency and explaining the unintended consequences of legislative actions comes into play. Our most important roles during the General Assembly session are as watchdog and educator. We look for any proposed legislation that could reduce Georgians’ access to the workings of their government, and we flag these problems for lawmakers.

Here’s a current example. Senate Bill 311 appears to be a well-meaning effort, from a frequent advocate for government openness, to make the audio recordings of court reporters available to the public.  The bill seems to be aimed at fixing a problem created when the Georgia Supreme Court recently held such recordings are not official court records and, therefore, are not required to be made available to the public. The effect of the Court’s decision has broad implications, but one clear outcome has been that producers of popular courtroom podcasts have no guaranteed access to recordings — usually paid for by taxpayer dollars — that provide audio records of criminal trials.

But in an effort to fix that problem, Senate Bill 311 would radically change the way citizens get court records — all court records, not just recordings. The bill would bring court records under Georgia’s Open Records Act, which, unfortunately, is littered with exceptions, fees and opportunities for delay. The bill needs to be narrowed under the principle of “do no harm.” Otherwise, we are better off with our current laws. We will work with the Legislature to shape the bill so it more closely aligns with First Amendment standards.

Thank you for your support of the foundation and our mission. Know that we are watching and will keep you posted on what’s happening under the Gold Dome. We appreciate that you care about government transparency as much as we do.

Tom Clyde, a GFAF board member and co-chair of the foundation’s Legal Committee, is a First Amendment attorney and partner at Kilpatrick Townsend.

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/