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.

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.

Open government protections fared well in legislative session

There were a few nail-biting moments for government transparency advocates during this year’s state General Assembly session. But, in the end, lawmakers treaded lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation engaged with lawmakers on several legislative proposals, laying out the pros and cons for public access. Here’s a short list of what kept us busy until the end of the session:

House Bill 9/Senate Bill 45: Neither of these “upskirting” bills passed, but the General Assembly did add narrow language to Senate Bill 104 making it illegal to film someone under or through clothing. The language does not restrict legitimate newsgathering or videotaping. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law.

House Bill 15: The foundation fought to make sure this bill requiring electronic filing of court records contained protections for public access. The proposed legislation was amended repeatedly as it made its way through the House and Senate, but it failed to emerge from a conference committee on the last day of the session. Given that final versions of the bill potentially impeded free and immediate access to court records, even at the courthouse, the failure of the bill was a good result for Georgians. However, we expect the bill to emerge again in next year’s legislative session.

House Bill 75: This bill permits the state Division of Family and Children Services to redact portions of its records before providing them to the public. The allowable redactions relate to information provided by law enforcement or prosecuting agencies in pending investigations or prosecutions. It passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

This bill is worrisome because it may limit disclosure of information in public DFACS records about children who die or are harmed while in DFACS custody. But its restrictions align with similar laws that apply to police records.

The bill’s proponents argued the law would help increase communication between DFACS and law enforcement agencies. The foundation will monitor future impacts of the law, watching for unnecessary restrictions to public access of DFACS records.

 House Bill 126: This bill reconfigures the Judicial Qualifications Commission, creating separate investigative and hearing panels to address alleged misconduct by judges. The bill also specifies transparency requirements requiring that the JQC make public:

  • Commission reports on informal dispositions of disciplinary matters; these reports are to be filed with the Georgia Supreme Court
  • Proceedings after formal charges are filed
  • Administrative matters of the commission.

Matters involving the alleged “incapacity” of a judge for health reasons will be sealed, but the records can be released by the commission under certain circumstances. The bill passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

 House Bill 481: This bill prevents local governments from enacting future regulations that conflict with the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules limiting drone activity. The bill preserves the FAA and the state as rulemakers on drone usage in Georgia. It prevents the passage of conflicting local ordinances that could have complicated the use of drones for newsgathering and other activities in the public interest.

For a full recap of the bills we monitored throughout the session, including those that didn’t survive Crossover Day, check out our updated Legislative Watch.

Amended e-filing bill threatens access to court records

An amended e-filing bill continues to jeopardize public access to court records in Georgia.

As it stands, House Bill 15 would give court clerks extraordinary power to delay the public’s access to electronically filed court records and impose burdensome fees for viewing them.

Under the proposed legislation, e-filed court documents would not be subject to public access until they are processed and officially “accepted” by a state or superior court clerk. That means citizens may not be able to view many court records until days after they are filed. In addition, the bill places no limit on what clerks could charge the public to access the records.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee, which met March 16, amended the bill to prevent government entities, including court clerks, from obtaining any portion of e-filing fees. But it’s still possible for clerks to implement fees to the public to view electronically filed court records at the courthouse —something that would be unprecedented in Georgia.

HB15 does not mandate electronically filed records be available for immediate viewing at courthouses. That would be a departure from existing judicial rules, which require a public terminal for free viewing at the courthouse as a minimum standard for electronic filing.

In a recent letter to committee members, foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer detailed ways HB15 could be amended to maintain existing protections for free and immediate public access to court filings at the courthouse. The foundation will continue to encourage lawmakers to maintain these traditional public access protections as the bill moves through the General Assembly.

The legislative session is scheduled to come to a close at the end of March.

Foundation calls on lawmakers to protect Georgians’ access to electronically filed court records

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is calling on state Senate Judiciary Committee members meeting today to modify an electronic-filing bill to better protect public access to court records.

In its current form, House Bill 15 could result in a fee for simply viewing court records — something that would be unprecedented in Georgia. The Senate Judiciary Committee meets at 4 p.m. today to consider the bill.

In a March 15 letter to committee members, foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer outlined problems in the proposed legislation and suggested modifications. The bill currently would require electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically.

Instead, it states that records are not subject to disclosure until physically accepted by a clerk – a provision that could delay access to public records.

In addition, the bill does not include a requirement that electronically filed records be available for viewing free of charge at the courthouse upon filing, something judicial rules now require as a minimum standard for electronic filing.

Electronic filing bill remains top GFAF legislative concern; could erode public access to court records

Accessing court records could take longer and cost more if an electronic-filing measure making its way through the Georgia General Assembly passes in its current form. House Bill 15 tops the “negative” bills detailed in our updated Legislative Watch.

The bill requires electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically.

Instead, it states that records are not subject to disclosure until physically accepted by a clerk – a provision that could delay access to public records.

In addition, the bill does not include a requirement that electronically filed records be available for viewing at the courthouse, something judicial rules now require as a minimum standard for electronic filing. The absence of this requirement could result in a charge for simply viewing electronic records, something that would be unprecedented in Georgia.

House Bill 15 should be modified to include minimum standards for electronic filing adopted by the Judicial Council of Georgia in 2014 and embraced by the Georgia Supreme Court. Those rules state that electronic documents must be publicly accessible upon filing for review at no charge on a public access terminal available at the courthouse during regular business hours.

Read our updated Legislative Watch to find out more about House Bill 15, including its sponsors, and get details on other proposals that survived crossover day in the Georgia General Assembly and their effects  — negative and positive — on the openness and transparency of government in Georgia.

 

Electronic filing bill could erode access to court records

Accessing court records could take longer and cost more if an electronic-filing measure making its way through the Georgia General Assembly passes in its current form. House Bill 15 tops the “negative” bills detailed in our updated Legislative Watch.

The bill requires electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically. Instead, it arguably makes court records, now available to the public upon filing, subject to the state Open Records Act. That could enable a three-day waiting period, as well as other exemptions.

In addition, the bill might be interpreted to allow a charge up to $7 “per transaction” to inspect court records electronically, which could drive up costs for citizens seeking court records and chill public access.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation would like to see House Bill 15 modified with provisions that:

  • Require clerks to keep free terminals or other means of free access to recently filed court records soon after filing.
  • Provide reasonably priced electronic access to members of the public.
  • Remove all references to the state Open Records Act.

Read our updated Legislative Watch to find out more about House Bill 15, including its sponsors, and get details on other proposals that would conceal potential conflicts of interests by donors to rural hospitals; reinforce public access to school accreditation records; increase transparency in state pardon and parole processes; and have other effects — negative and positive — on the openness and transparency of government in Georgia.

To stand a chance of becoming law, bills must move from the originating chamber to the other one by Crossover Day, March 3, 2017.

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