First Amendment Foundation honors Chief Justice Carol Hunstein
2:27 pm, March 14th, 2013
Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein will receive the Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information award tonight as part of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual banquet and fundraiser. The late Otis Brumby Jr., publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, also will be honored.
Hunstein is being honored “as an unwavering supporter of public access to the courts and a strong proponent of government transparency at all levels,” according to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Hunstein began her tenure on the high court when she filled the vacancy created by the death of Chief Justice Charles Weltner in 1992. Then a DeKalb Superior Court judge, Hunstein was appointed by Governor Zell Miller as the second woman on the court, following Miller’s appointment nine months earlier of Leah Ward Sears.
The Daily Report hasn’t done an in-depth interview with Hunstein since her rigorous election campaign of 2006, and at that time we asked her to identify her 10 most noteworthy decisions. Two of those decisions dealt with openness in the courts.
Hunstein’s list of her most important decisions may have changed, but with the award being presented tonight, we thought it was worth identifying the open court cases she included in her Top 10 at the time. Here’s how reporter Alyson M. Palmer summarized the two cases in her Sept. 5, 2006, article.
Rockdale Citizen Publishing Co. v. State, 266 Ga. 579 (1996): Hunstein wrote for a unanimous court in reversing a trial judge’s order to ban the public and news media from all pretrial proceedings in a capital case. In a previous appeal, the high court had found there might be evidence to support a closure order based on pretrial publicity but remanded for the trial court to articulate more fully its consideration of alternatives to closure. Hunstein had written a concurrence at that stage saying the pretrial publicity was not highly inflammatory but merely described a heinous crime, the murder of a grocery store clerk. In the majority opinion that she highlighted as one of her most significant, Hunstein wrote that there was insufficient evidence that the defendant would not receive a fair trial, noting that there had been a change of venue. She said the closure was based on speculation about media coverage that might take place in the new venue. “Assumptions and speculation can never justify the infringement on First Amendment rights which the closure of criminal proceedings creates,” wrote Hunstein. Justice George Carley wrote a concurrence joined by Justice Hugh P. Thompson in which he said he only “reluctantly” agreed to reverse the closure order.
Southeastern Newspapers Corp. v. State, 265 Ga. 223 (1995): Hunstein dissented from the majority’s decision to affirm a trial court’s closure of pretrial proceedings in a capital case. In the majority’s brief opinion, Carley wrote that the closure order backed by two defendants and the prosecution was supported by evidence of danger to the defendants’ rights to a fair trial and was narrowly drawn. Hunstein, joined by Justice Robert Benham and Justice Leah Ward Sears, said that closure of a criminal proceeding should be a “last resort” and that the two newspaper articles that were the basis for the closure were insufficient given their brevity, accuracy, lack of emotion and placement within the papers.