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.

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