Tate wins Freedom of Information Award as part of JQC
by Jason Lowrey
Aug 21, 2014 | 1696 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Earlier this year Cartersville Attorney Lester Tate won the Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in recognition of his work on the Judicial Qualifications Commission for the state of Georgia.

Tate, who has served on the JQC for four years and is its vice chair, was one of 11 people to win the award. In a May 1 press release, the GFAF said the commission deserved its award by issuing an opinion, “which aggressively reinforced the importance of open judicial proceedings in Georgia.”

The opinion, known as Opinion 239, was intended to inform judges on the importance of keeping courtroom proceedings open to the public.

“What happened with this was we got a ton of complaints from various individuals, ranging from simply family members of people who were involved in court proceedings to reporters who were trying to cover court proceedings, that they couldn’t get in the courtroom [and] that there were signs on the courtroom doors — ‘Defendants and lawyers only’ — or that a courtroom had been closed or cleared out. That kind of thing,” he said. “The U.S. Supreme Court actually held in a case coming out of Georgia that, absent specific findings — and there’s certain reasons that you can close a courtroom — but absent specific findings that it needs to be closed for some special purpose, the default position is the courtroom ought to be open and it ought to be where any member of the public can walk in and can observe the proceedings. Because that’s part of what engenders public confidence in the proceedings — that they’re able to watch them and know what goes on.

“... So, after receiving a fair number of complaints about this ..., we really wanted judges just to start making sure their courtrooms were open, not to discipline judges or do anything about it. So ultimately we put out an advisory opinion.”

Tate explained the JQC has a constitutional authority to investigate and discipline judges for misconduct. Three of the members are attorneys with more than 10 years of experience elected by the governors of the State Bar of Georgia, two judges appointed by the Supreme Court and two lay people appointed by the governor. In exercising its authority, the commission can also issue advisory opinions, such as Opinion 239.

The opinion notes that the commission received complaints about signs barring children, family and guests. Doing so in the name of efficiency or expediency is not acceptable, the opinion concludes.

“The courtroom closures, which are the subject of this opinion, are ones where there are no findings of fact or an order in a specific case, but rather a systemic exclusion of the public by the court,” the order reads. “Although many of these blanket exclusions are often based on logistical concerns (i.e., too little space, too many cases on the calendar, etc.), such concerns cannot be resolved by the blanket exclusion of the public, or a specified class or portion thereof, without violating both the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct. Although we recognize that many courtrooms do not have adequate space, we urge members of the judiciary to consider options and alternatives appropriate under the circumstances that may allow individuals to view and participate in proceedings, including, but not limited to, viewing rooms, additional seating, smaller calendars, or dividing the docket between morning and afternoon calendars.”

The opinion was unanimously approved.

“We issued that opinion in the hope that it would sort of educate judges about what the obligation is and that they would engender an attitude of making sure that the courtroom’s open, and we feel like it’s had that effect,” Tate said.

The GFAF believed the opinion had a nearly immediate effect in improving court access for the public, according to the release.

Hyde Post, president of GFAF, said, “The commission advanced the cause of government transparency to the benefit of all Georgia citizens.”

In addition to Tate, Marietta attorney Robert D. Ingram, Atlanta civic leader Linda Evans, Statesboro attorney James B. Franklin, Fulton County State Court Judge Patsy Y. Porter, Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda S. Weaver, Staff Director Jeffrey R. Davis, Chief Investigator Richard L. Hyde and Executive Assistant Tara R. Moon, as well as former JQC members, retired Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen and Brunswick attorney Jim Durham received the award.

“It’s something that I’m very proud of because, being a trial lawyer, I believe that the public ought to have access to what goes on in courtrooms,” Tate said. “I think it is important to the public. It builds confidence on behalf of the public to see what goes on in courtrooms and not just see, but be able to get accurate reports from media outlets, too, who are there to actually observe the proceedings.

“I’m very, very proud of the opinion we issued and certainly very flattered as we as a commission were given the award.”