Superior Court judges in the Cordele Judicial Circuit have settled a class action suit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of people who claimed they were unconstitutionally barred from court hearings.
The settlement, announced by the Southern Center, follows two scathing rulings by U.S. District Judge Louis Sands, who refused to dismiss the suit.
Filed last summer, it claimed that more than a dozen members of the public—including defendants’ family members, friends and one pastor—had been barred from courts. The complaint claimed that the judges, the county sheriffs and their staffs in the Cordele Circuit were systematically preventing the public from attending hearings unless they were related to defendants entering guilty pleas.
Southern Center lawyers had asked for a declaratory judgment that would force the judges and court personnel to accommodate members of the public who wanted to observe court proceedings. The Center was also seeking class action status for everyone who had been denied entry to court hearings.
The suit named the circuit’s Superior Court judges as defendants – Robert Chasteen Jr., T. Christopher Hughes, and Chief Judge John Pridgen. The Ben Hill and Crisp county sheriffs were also named as defendants.
“Judge Sands has clearly stated that the public has a right to view court proceedings, and after a long and hard road, the judges in Ben Hill and Crisp counties have finally seen the light,” said SCHR attorney Gerry Weber.
A spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office defended the judges, referred the Daily Report to the judges for comment. They could not be reached on Monday.
The judges had cited limited seating in courtrooms in the law enforcement centers and security concerns associated with transporting defendants to larger courtrooms at the county courthouses in response to allegations that only family members of defendants were permitted to attend court hearings. They have said in affidavits that they try to accommodate relatives and other members of the public whenever they are notified of a complaint.
The agreement requires that all pre-trial proceedings held in Ben Hill and Crisp counties, including hearings in courtrooms in the counties’ law enforcement centers, are “presumptively open to the public” and that closing those courtrooms is a constitutional violation unless there are “documented findings of fact justifying a compelling interest in the public’s exclusion in a particular case, and the consideration of narrowly tailored alternatives to closure,” according to the terms of the settlement.
The agreement also acknowledges that requiring citizens seeking entry to a courtroom to prove their relationship to a criminal defendant scheduled to appear in court, or conditioning public access on a plea, regardless of available space, are both constitutional violations.
“In order to access public courtrooms, citizens need not answer questions from court or law enforcement staff, and defendants must not demand that persons seeking entry explain who they are and their reasons for seeking entry in courtrooms,” the settlement agreement states.
The settlement also mandates that a judge must consider alternatives to partial or total courtroom closures and hold a hearing and state specific findings that would justify closure.
The settlement acknowledges that the Cordele Circuit’s Superior Court judges have the authority and responsibility to maintain the integrity and decorum of the courtroom and, as such, have the right to post and enforce basic rules of conduct. But it requires each judge to deal with disruptions or rules violations on a case-by-case basis except in matters of public safety.
The settlement also cites an opinion released by the state Judicial Qualifications commission that directed judges not to bar children or teenagers from their courts or limit access only to lawyers, witnesses and court personnel without a specific finding.
As part of the settlement, the defendant judges have agreed to place signs on or near courtroom doors informing the public of their rights to observe superior court hearings unless specific factual and legal findings are made on the record justifying closure. The judges have also agreed to instruct bailiffs and sheriff’s deputies to promptly ensure the public is able to enter a courtroom following any closure.
The settlement also bars the use of courtrooms in the county law enforcement centers for criminal proceedings except in limited circumstances that must detailed in case-specific orders.
The defendants agreed, in settling the case, to reimburse the Southern Center $40,000 in legal fees.