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AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Why are Georgia judges suddenly camera-shy?

The Council of Superior Court Judges is considering changes to the rule allowing news cameras in the state's courtrooms, raising alarms among transparency advocates.

The council is attempting to rewrite a courtroom rule known as "Rule 22," which governs how and when news organizations and others can shoot photos and roll cameras during trials.

The council, of which most people have never heard, is meeting Monday to discuss the proposed new rule. The meeting will be at St. Simons Island -- but let's set that aside for now.

Historically, Georgia's courtrooms have been open to trial coverage, but times have changed and so has technology.

Judges are increasingly worried that citizens with smart phones could transmit images of jurors or record and broadcast private conversations between a defendant and an attorney. In trying to address those concerns, the proposed new rule would lump professional journalists with everyone else in a scheme with greater restrictions on recording.

I wrote about the plan at length in a column in March. You can read it here.

The danger is that judges may take the rule as a sign that courtrooms are no longer presumed to be open to coverage. If that happens, you will have less of an understanding of what goes on inside them than before.

I've seen judges overstep their authority before, such as a judge I wrote about in North Georgia who held reporters outside an open court and then questioned them individually about who they were and what they were doing. It was irregular, but no one was barred from recording. ( You can read about that interesting episode here. )

If this re-write of Rule 22 gives judges the impression that courts are not presumptively open, then they may decide they are only as open as they think they should be.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for open and transparent government, has submitted to the council its own rewrite of Rule 22. The foundation's version separates the use of cameras and other recording devices used to cover trials and creates a separate rule for smart phones.

Attorney Peter Canfield said the governing idea should be that courtrooms are welcoming places for the public to see government in action.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, we carried around pen and paper and books," he said. "Now we have that all in our smart phones.  If courts want to be welcoming they have to make it easy for (the public) to come and participate and a blanket exclusion of cell phones is not the answer.”

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuster, who serves on the council, sent me an updated version of the proposed rule, which makes some minor adjustments to the draft from January posted on the council website.

It specifies that a request for camera coverage of a trial must be made 24 hours in advance "where practicable." An earlier version required the request be made "sufficiently in advance," which could be interpreted a bunch of ways by a judge. Another change requires judges to determine "substantial" harm, rather than just "harm," from camera coverage before denying a request.

But it still places a litany of new conditions on allowing cameras and other recording devices in the courtroom, giving judges or attorneys plenty of ammunition should they seek to close the courtroom to them. And it outright bans recording when the judge is "off the bench," something not banned at present.

"I cannot make everyone happy, but I think this is a better balance," Schuster said in an email.

Canfield said the draft is better than the most recent he had seen. But it "still presumptively prohibits, rather than allows, the public's silent, non-disruptive use of any electronic device in the courtroom," he said.

Joyner writes the AJC Watchdog, a weekly column that appears in Friday's Metro section. He also is a member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.