Georgia’s 2017 right-to-know milestones

The public’s right to know in Georgia ended 2017 with a mixed scorecard.

On the plus side, the state’s high court affirmed that Northside Hospital and others similarly organized are subject to open records laws. Georgia senators decided to join their House counterparts, allowing video transmissions of committee meetings for the first time, starting in 2018.

But 2017 also had some setbacks. A jury found a citizen journalist guilty of a misdemeanor for an incident that arose from her recording of a political rally. A court ruled that unfiled court reporter recordings are not public records, a setback for legal affairs podcasts. And a remake of the state’s judicial watchdog appears to leave it less transparent, not more open, as legislators had promised.

Our year in review includes a detailed look at events that had an impact on public access and government transparency statewide, and how the Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought for citizens’ right to know.

January

February-March

  • Throughout the General Assembly session, the foundation encourages lawmakers to tread lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech. The foundation engages with lawmakers on legislative proposals related to electronic filing of court records; redaction of portions of state Division of Family and Children Services records; reconfiguration of the Judicial Qualifications Commission; drone regulations; and so-called “upskirting” restrictions. (For a full recap, check out our post-session Legislative Watch.)

April

  • Georgia House of Representatives sends a remake of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to the governor to sign. Supporters say the revamp increases transparency and reins in an overly aggressive judicial watchdog. Critics say giving lawmakers control over the commission will politicize it.
  • The Atlanta Press Club honors longtime foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer with its Impact Award.

May

June

July

  • The Judicial Qualifications Commission remake becomes state law, as does new guidance for drone use and other measures passed by the 2017 General Assembly.

September

  • The newly remade Judicial Qualifications Commission dismisses a case against a Georgia judge whose actions led to jailing of the Fannin Focus publisher and his lawyer. The commission discharged the complaints after an investigation that did not include contacting those who filed complaints.

October

  • The state Senate agrees to permit video transmission of its committee hearings.
  • The foundation honors The Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program and the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis at its 2017 Weltner Banquet.
  • A case involving the Undisclosed true-crime podcast ends with a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that unfiled court reporter recordings are not public records. The foundation opposes the Court’s position and suggests an alternative approach.

November

  • The Georgia Supreme Court affirms government transparency laws apply to Northside Hospital in a case the foundation closely watched and weighed in on through court filings. The ruling supports the principle that publicly created institutions are bound by state open records laws, even if they reorganize as nonprofits. In an indication of the statewide impact, the Savannah Morning News soon cites the ruling in its ongoing efforts to get records from a local hospital.

December

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Legislative Watch: Looking ahead to 2017

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation spends 100 percent of our time advocating for and educating about access to public information, government transparency and free speech. Much of that work happens at the state General Assembly, where we fight for open government and unfettered newsgathering that benefits all Georgians.

The Georgia General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9. Here are our top priorities as the session approaches:

Advocating for transparency in policing

 Police are spending tax dollars to acquire body cameras, but then refusing to provide the video to the public. Police agencies are claiming it is their right to prevent the public from seeing the video for an indefinite period of time so long as they say an investigation is “open.” GFAF is working hard to make sure laws related to body cameras bring more transparency to policing across the state.

Urging openness for the state’s judicial watchdog

 A new constitutional amendment allows legislators to remake the state’s 40-year-old judicial watchdog agency. Lawmakers will appoint some Judicial Qualifications Commission members, and the state Senate will confirm all JQC appointments. In addition, the legislation behind the JQC changes states the findings and records of the commission “shall not be open to the public except as provided by the General Assembly.” We’re urging lawmakers to build openness and transparency into operations of the recreated JQC.

Exposing secret business deals

 The Georgia General Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation expanding the secrecy around the state’s negotiations with companies that want to put factories in Georgia. Government officials want to decide what is best for communities without consulting citizens. We’re advocating for Georgians’ right to know.

 Keeping information about public institutions open to the public

The Georgia General Assembly and the Georgia courts have repeatedly taken steps that erode transparency of public hospitals, law enforcement and other institutions. GFAF and First Amendment partners have taken action in the courts and in the Legislature to oppose this erosion of public access.

Speeding up access to public information

The Georgia General Assembly is delaying public and press access to records related to Georgia college sports. The public has a right to see for themselves what contracts are being signed, what misconduct has occurred and what actions have been taken. We’re working to prevent such long delays that the right to these records becomes meaningless.

Preventing the erasure of criminal histories

 Convicted criminals are increasingly being permitted to erase past criminal records. We’re fighting to make sure these “erasure statutes” do not leave Georgia businesses and citizens at risk of hiring employees who have been found guilty of serious crimes.

Promoting effective records management and reasonable access costs

 The rapid pace of digitization of public records has public agencies and institutions increasingly outsourcing their records management to commercial vendors. Without vigilance by GFAF, these vendors drive up cost of public records, thereby limiting access to private citizens who cannot pay commercial rates.

In addition, digitization has led to a change in some fees for record retrieval. Per-page fees have given way to “research” or “redaction” fees that can significantly drive up the cost of obtaining public records. GFAF is working to ensure public records are accessible to all citizens at a reasonable cost.

We’ll update our Legislative Watch as the General Assembly draws nearer and more bills are filed. Become a member and receive our e-mail newsletters with legislative updates and other First Amendment news.


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Ga. Supreme Court affirms court access but requires reconsideration of opinion

A recent ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court declared the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings “indisputable.” But the Court also declined to approve a 2013 Judicial Qualifications Commission advisory opinion that directed judges to keep courtrooms open in most cases.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation strongly supported the JQC advisory opinion that a judge only could close a courtroom under extraordinary circumstances — and only after making a finding on why closure was necessary. In 2014, we recognized the JQC for the opinion, which immediately resulted in unobstructed public access to courts throughout the state. We also filed amicus briefs with the Georgia Supreme Court during its review of the JQC opinion.

We are disappointed that the Court did not endorse the broad First Amendment protections spelled out in the JQC’s advisory opinion. But we are pleased that the Court’s ruling emphasizes the public’s undeniable right to open judicial proceedings.

The effect of the Court’s Nov. 30 ruling is that the advisory opinion returns to the JQC for reconsideration. We will continue to promote open courts and access for Georgia citizens, and we will actively encourage the JQC to issue a revised opinion that advises judges to adhere to this important right.

Check out news reports about the ruling from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Albany Herald, Daily Report and WSB-TV.

Ballot initiative to abolish judicial watchdog group a bad idea

By Hyde Post

— Two years ago, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation honored the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) for an opinion that strongly discouraged judges from hydephoto11keeping the public out of courtrooms.

The foundation’s board believes the JQC’s opinion significantly, and almost immediately, improved public access to courts in Georgia. The JQC advanced the cause of government transparency to the benefit of all Georgia citizens.

The JQC was created by a constitutional amendment voters approved back in 1972. It operates largely independently, comprised of members appointed by the governor, the state Supreme Court and the Georgia Bar Association. But some legislators were unhappy with how the JQC was run.

As a result, voters this fall will be asked to vote on a new constitutional amendment that would abolish the commission as it is currently constituted and give state legislators the authority to decide how commissioners should be chosen and how the commission should operate.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation strongly believes adoption of the amendment could result in less transparency about how Georgia’s courts operate and how its judges conduct themselves.

The language voters will read on the ballot is itself less than revealing. It says new rules will “allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner.” But that manner is not defined and far from certain. In the last session, the Senate version of proposed enabling legislation tightened confidentiality around commission investigations of alleged misconduct by judges and sought to further restrict public access to its hearings.

In recent years, the strong trend at the General Assembly has been toward more government secrecy, not less. (The Legislature has always exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act.) In the last session alone, the Legislature passed a bill allowing any state agency to conceal documents involving possible business expansions of $25 million in investment or 50 jobs until after a deal is signed. The bill presumes that if, say, the construction of a private prison near your home could create 50 jobs, you are only entitled to learn about it after the fact.

The same General Assembly also approved, at the eleventh hour and without any discussion, an exemption to the Open Records Act that allows state college athletic departments 90 days – rather than the usual three – to respond to public records requests. No other public agency in Georgia is given such latitude to conduct its business in secret.

Neither of those actions suggests a predisposition in the 2017 Legislature to embrace the philosophy of transparency advanced by the JQC when it made clear there are very few valid reasons for closing courtrooms to the public.

There is no question the open court opinion ruffled the feathers of many judges; the Council of State Court Judges argued before the Georgia Supreme Court in a still-pending case that the opinion should be revised.

And there is no question that the commission has gotten more aggressive. The JQC has removed or disciplined judges for a range of bad behavior, including telling a female defendant that favorable rulings would be granted in exchange for sex; theft and fraud involving more than $1 million; pulling a handgun in open court and suggesting a witness could use it to kill her lawyer; tipping off the targets of an undercover FBI investigation; barring female bailiffs from the courtroom; and setting up personal accounts funded by the unauthorized collection of court fees.

The aggressive enforcement has made the commission some enemies. One former judge, who resigned after a commission investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of a female attorney, later ran for the Legislature. He is now one of the principal sponsors of the bill seeking the commission’s abolishment.

There is also no question that the commission today faces significant internal challenges. Its former chair, Lester Tate, resigned after the 2016 legislative session, citing political interference, but also amid charges he abused his authority. More recently, its executive director resigned. And in August, the north Georgia judge who took over as chair, Brenda Weaver, also resigned after she became embroiled in a controversy in which she supported a criminal indictment of a Fannin County newspaper publisher seeking public records concerning her court.

Until the recent turmoil, the commission operated effectively for more than 40 years without any significant effort mounted to abolish it or rewrite its rules.

It is a creature of and operates under the umbrella of the state’s judicial branch, which is where it should stay. To put the Legislature in charge of its future is contrary to the separation of powers principles embedded in Georgia government. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation takes the position that to empower the Legislature to reconstitute the Judicial Qualifications Commission is far more likely to politicize the process of judicial oversight than to advance the cause of an open and accountable government.

 Hyde Post is a board member and past president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.