SCHR Settles Class Action Lawsuit against Judges for Denying the Public Access to Courts

From a press release.

 

ALBANY, GEORGIA – Today, a class-action challenge to the unconstitutional practice of denying public access to courts in Ben Hill and Crisp County has reached a settlement pending final approval of the Court.  The settlement requests that the Court issue an order binding the defendants to its terms for a period of eighteen months.

To guarantee that courtrooms remain open to the public, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) reached a settlement with the Superior Court Judges named in the suit.

“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.

Last summer, the SCHR filed Fuqua, et al.  v. Pridgen, et al., a civil rights lawsuit, to open courtroom doors that were systematically closed to the public.  The named Defendants in the lawsuit were Superior Court Judges John Pridgen, Robert Chasteen, Jr., and T. Christopher Hughes; Crisp County Sheriff Donnie Haralson; and Ben Hill County Superior Court Bailiffs James Butts, James Clark, John K. Fletcher, Dewey Hannon, Wilbert King, and Donald Paulk.

Both the United States and Georgia Constitutions protect the public’s right to attend hearings in criminal cases.  Yet judges and sheriffs in Ben Hill and Crisp counties routinely denied access to members of the public seeking to observe hearings in the jail courtrooms.  Generally, exceptions were made only for relatives of people who came before the court, even then, they were only allowed to watch the hearings involving their relatives.  On occasion, they were not even allowed to watch those hearings if their loved one entered a not guilty plea.

Today’s settlement ensures that under the First Amendment courtroom proceedings will be open to the public and the public will not be subject to questioning and approval prior to entry.  The agreement also specifies that requiring citizens seeking entry into a courtroom to either prove their relationship to a criminal defendant appearing in court, or otherwise conditioning access on the plea ultimately entered by the criminal defendant, notwithstanding available space, violates citizens’ First Amendment right of access. Signage for the doors to each courtroom must clearly inform the public of their right to observe superior court hearings unless otherwise noted. Additionally, Judges must stop using Law Enforcement Center courtrooms for criminal proceedings, except in limited circumstances.

“The judges contended that citizens do not have a right to enter courtrooms even when seats are available, and that there is no right to attend arraignments, but Judge Sands’ prior rulings in the case had already rejected those arguments,” said SCHR attorney Atteeyah Hollie.

To read the terms of the settlement, visit www.schr.org

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