Last year, Lithonia resident Joyce Scales and her sister made a two-and-a-half hour drive to Cordele to attend a hearing for Scales' nephew, Greg Hammond, who was incarcerated in the Cordele County Jail. But a court bailiff barred the two women from entering the courtroom at the Crisp County Law Enforcement Center or attending Hammond's arraignment, telling them they could enter only if Hammond entered a guilty plea, according to a federal suit filed last week in Albany.
"I especially wanted to be there for Greg because he has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and I was very concerned about what would happen in court," Scales wrote in an affidavit filed with the suit "He does not always understand what is being said, and I wanted to be sure he saw someone he recognized that day in court."
After waiting two hours and straining to see Hammond whenever the courtroom doors opened, Scales said she approached the deputy to ask about her nephew's case. She was told "there was nothing to see" because Hammond had pleaded not guilty and had been returned to his cell.
Scales is one of more than a dozen people who have signed affidavits or told staff members with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta that they have been unconstitutionally barred from court hearings in Crisp and Ben Hill counties in the Cordele Judicial Circuit.
She is one of four named plaintiffs in the suit, which Southern Center lawyers filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Georgia on June 21 against the Cordele Circuit's three Superior Court judges and the sheriffs of Ben Hill and Crisp counties. The suit claims that court officials are systemically barring the public at large, including family members and friends of the defendants whose cases are being adjudicated, from watching court hearings that by law should be open to the public.
Southern Center lawyers are seeking class action status on behalf of members of the general public and family members of individuals charged with crimes who have been refused entry to court hearings. They have asked U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands of the Middle District of Georgia for both preliminary and permanent injunctions that would bar the Cordele circuit from routinely closing its courtroom doors.
It is the second time the Southern Center has sued Cordele Circuit officials seeking access to closed courtrooms. In 2003, as part of a larger civil rights suit on behalf of indigent criminal defendants, the Southern Center said circuit officials routinely locked courtroom doors during hearings or posted a sheriff's deputy at the door to stop citizens from entering.
John Pridgen, the Cordele Circuit's chief Superior Court judge and a defendant in the new suit, was also a defendant in the 2003 litigation. Superior Court Judge Robert Chasteen Jr., who is also named as a defendant in the new suit, was in 2003 counsel of record for the Cordele Circuit, said Stephen Bright, the Southern Center's president and senior counsel.
The Southern Center dismissed the case in 2004 when the circuit established a public defender office and allowed public access to courtrooms in the Ben Hill and Crisp county law enforcement centers, according to Crisp County court records in the case.
"What is so egregious about Cordele is that they know they are supposed to have courtrooms open," said Bright. County officials, he said, agreed to open the courtrooms to the public and "then went right back to what they were doing before. … This is a long-standing practice we are trying to get stopped."
But, Bright added, this time, the Southern Center intends to get a court order that insures the courts will stay open rather than trusting the assurances of lawyers defending the circuit.
Pridgen told the Daily Report last week that the 2003 allegations were "complete fabrications."
"There was never anything inappropriate about what we did then and what we do now," he added. "In all candor, we will try it in the courtroom if they see fit to do that. ... Last time, they dismissed it. We'll be glad to see them in court anytime they want to come and present their case."
An assistant to Chasteen said he did not make comments to the media.
Other defendants are Superior Court Judge T. Christopher Hughes and the sheriffs of Ben Hill and Crisp counties, two of four counties in the Cordele circuit south of Macon. The other two counties are Dooly and Wilcox.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who led a push to revamp the state's open records and open meetings laws in the General Assembly this year, will defend the judges. A spokeswoman said the attorney general has received the lawsuit but would have no comment.
THE SHERIFF'S POINT OF VIEW
Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore, a defendant in the federal suit, told the Daily Report this week that neither he nor his deputies have barred the public from attending court hearings because bailiffs stationed at courtroom doors at the Ben Hill County Law Enforcement Center work for the Superior Court judges, not the sheriff's department.
"I haven't had a deputy who told anybody they could go in or out," he said. "I don't have anything to do with who comes and goes in the courtroom. That's the judges' decision and the bailiffs' decision. … We only do courtroom security and transport prisoners."
McLemore took issue with allegations in the suit that a sign reading "Closed Session" was posted on the courtroom doors. He said that sign was used only when juvenile court, which he said is not open to the public, is in session. He also said that a review of law enforcement center videotapes shows that one of the four plaintiffs, Beverly Fuqua, was allowed into the courtroom on the three occasions, even though her affidavit said she was denied entry at those times.
But McLemore acknowledged that the law enforcement center courtroom is small, with only two benches that seat about 14 people. He said that there is a large courtroom at the nearby Ben Hill County Courthouse, but transporting inmates from the county jail in the law enforcement center would pose a security challenge.
"If we were told to do that, we would do that," he added.
Crisp County Sheriff Donnie Haralson wouldn't comment on the allegations in the suit.
AROUND THE STATE
The Cordele Circuit is one of several judicial circuits across the state where judges have been challenged over courtroom closures. Twice in the past two years, the Georgia Supreme Court has upheld judges' decisions to close courtrooms to the public in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
But in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated as unconstitutional the state high court's ruling in a 2006 DeKalb criminal case in which the judge barred members of the public, including the defendant's family, from the courtroom and from the floor of the courthouse where her courtroom was located during jury voir dire.
In Cobb County last year, former Gov. Roy Barnes secured the dismissal of an indictment against the chief executive officer of Cobb EMC because the grand jury presentments were made inside a newly built courthouse while it was locked and deputies barred access via a separate catwalk entrance.
Barnes argued at the time that the new building was not accessible to members of the "smelly public" so that "a mere stranger with mud on his feet and a dirty T-shirt sitting in the back of the room could come in and hear the people's business."
Southern Center attorney Gerry Weber told the Daily Report this week that the organization has received anecdotal evidence that courtrooms are being closed "in a lot of different places" across the state.
"Now we are investigating systematically to see if it's a problem in other jurisdictions," he said, adding that throughout the summer, the Southern Center will be sending law students and interns to courthouses throughout Georgia to monitor the public's access.
Weber said that the Southern Center sued the Cordele Circuit's Superior Court judges and sheriffs after its investigators discovered that officials in the Cordele Circuit had breached the seven-year-old agreement to open courtrooms they had routinely closed to the public.
Like Scales, the Lithonia woman who said she was prevented from attending her nephew's hearing, other plaintiffs and witnesses in the Southern Center case claim in affidavits that they, too, were barred from court hearings if a defendant pleaded not guilty. They said they often waited hours in a lobby outside the courtroom without being notified that a defendant's hearing had been held.
People also were barred from court even though empty seats were available, according to the affidavits. "Both the Ben Hill and Crisp County jails have effectively turned the 'strong presumption' of openness on its head," the suit states. "In these two counties, the presumption is that members of the public will not be allowed into court."
A STUDENT'S EXPERIENCE
Carl Ringgold, a Morehouse College senior and a Southern Center intern, was one of those people who was denied entry to the Crisp County Law Enforcement Center courtroom and gained entry only after the presiding judge gave his permission, according to the suit.
Ringgold, whom the Southern Center had sent to Cordele to observe criminal hearings, said in an affidavit that he was informed that he would need approval from a "superior officer" and was asked to produce both his driver's license and student identification before he would be allowed into the courtroom, according to his affidavit.
A court employee retained his identification and license for more than 90 minutes before a deputy presented them to the presiding judge and secured permission for him to enter the courtroom, according to court records.
Terry Mills, a Morehouse College dean, later sent a letter of complaint about Ringgold's experience to the court and the county sheriff.
Judge Hughes and Crisp County's chief deputy, H.W. "Billy" Hancock, responded in letters included in the Southern Center suit outlining their approach to public attendance at criminal hearings.
Hughes noted that it was a very busy day in court, and "I'm sure the courtroom was packed with defendants and their family members and attorneys," adding that the Crisp County Law Enforcement Center courtroom "is very small and seating is very limited."
The judge also acknowledged that he had asked the head of courtroom security "to limit the number of defendants in the courtroom to no more than six for security reasons and so that there would be more seating for family and others."
But he said that his policy was "to welcome interns and observers and to find a place for them in the courtroom." He then gave the dean his cellphone number and said if he had a student who "has an access issue in any courtroom in which I am presiding," that they could text him to notify him of the problem or call 30 minutes prior to court, and "I will meet them before court and let them come in with me."
In his letter to the dean, Hancock said that "there was no intention to deny your student the opportunity to view the court proceedings," but that normally the court received "a courtesy call ahead of time when a student will be coming."
Hancock asserted that "all our court proceedings are open to the public," but added, "We have a very small courtroom at the Law Enforcement Center" that allowed only 4 to 5 seats for spectators or family members.
"We provide each family an opportunity to come in at the time of their loved ones' appearance, but must clear the courtroom at other times, to allow this," he said.
"We also have security issues that must be addressed due to the size of the courtroom," and that because Ringgold may have arrived after court had convened, it may have been "harder for approval due to superior officers being tied up in the courtroom."
The case is Fuqua v. Pridgen, No. 1:12-cv-00093 (M.D. Ga.).