Georgia judge’s bizarre conduct steps on First Amendment

Updated July 21, 2016
Senior Judge Richard Winegarden signed orders Monday dropping felony charges against a North Georgia journalist and his attorney. At the hearing, Winegarden lectured journalists covering the hearing for 35 minutes after articles appeared prior to the hearing that he considered critical of his efforts.

North Georgia newspaper publisher Mark Thomason can rightly claim victory following Monday’s court hearing in Pickens County where a visiting senior judge dropped felony charges against him and his attorney, Russell Stookey.

But the bizarre and borderline unethical behavior of Judge Richard Winegarden, a senior judge from Gwinnett County who signed the order, only amplified the story line of judicial overreach that prompted the case to begin with.

Earlier this month, Thomason and Stookey were accused of making false statements and attempted identity theft in their attempts to pry into how Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver was spending taxpayer money. Advocates for a free press and transparent courts howled that the charges, brought by District Attorney Alison Sosebee, were politically motivated.

When the indictments made national headlines, Weaver and Sosebee backed down and asked the court to drop the charges. No local judges would handle the case, so it was assigned to Winegarden.

The proceedings seemed unusual from the moment I entered the courthouse and was greeted by a deputy who asked if I was with the media. I was directed to the basement where I found about 15 other reporters cooling their heels outside an empty courtroom. It was 20 minutes later before I discovered the hearing actually was two floors above me.

Eventually, deputies escorted us upstairs and into another courtroom where the hearing was already underway. “Nobody’s got permission to do anything but be here so far,” Winegarden told the media.

Reporters ordered to state their business

Clearly, reporters who had come to observe the hearing had been segregated and held outside an open courtroom for no other reason other than that we were reporters. This would be strange and chilling in any court hearing, but consider the context: The reason reporters had come to a procedural hearing in Jasper, Ga., was out of concern over the alleged abuse of judicial power.

Winegarden knew this was not standard practice because he later tried to catch us up on what we missed, which he said was mostly introductions. Defense attorney Fletcher Griffin piped up that he had introduced a couple of motions, including a demand for a speedy trial.

Once inside, the judge required each individual reporter in open court to state their names, media affiliate and what they intended to do. After each reporter spoke, Winegarden solicited objections from the prosecution and the defense.

In Georgia, judges can decide whether to allow cameras and other electronic recording devices in their courtroom and reporters have to file a motion requesting it. It is not common, however, to require reporters to identify themselves and state their intentions, regardless of whether they have a motion before the court.

I didn’t have a motion. Instead, I had a pad, a pen and a constitutionally protected curiosity about what the heck was going on up in the courtrooms of North Georgia.

Sonja West, a law professor at the University of Georgia and an expert on the First Amendment, said targeting the press like that is “very troubling.”

“It was an open hearing. You have a constitutional right as a member of the press and the public to be in open proceedings,” she said. “It also sounds a little bit like trying to intimidate members of the press.”

Judge recounts medical, dental appointments

But Winegarden wasn’t done.

There had been several news stories before the hearing, some of which included comments from experts questioning the need for a hearing rather than just signing the order and allowing Thomason and Stookey to go free.

The district attorney announced her desire to drop the charges against the two men on July 7 and more than a week had passed without any relief.

Reporters and defense attorneys were unsure what was taking so long and Thomason and Stookey continued to be subject to bond conditions, including regular drug testing for Thomason.

Winegarden was irritated by the stories. “It’s very unusual, in my judgment, for the court to be questioned and criticized for the handling of a case prior to the court really doing anything in the case,” he said.

The judge held forth for the next 35 minutes, including verbatim readings of some of the articles, detailed accounts of his medical and dental appointments, his work on other cases and the travails of being a circuit-riding senior judge. Winegarden spent more time on this exercise than on the hearing itself, but he had a point.

Winegarden had to schedule a hearing because, if for no other reason, one of the defendants opposed the motion. Stookey wanted the case brought to trial or for the DA to enter an acquittal.

There. I did in two sentences what Winegarden took a half hour to accomplish in his indulgent explanation. But he got his message across: Don’t question me.

My call to the judge

In his soliloquy, Winegarden said he had received calls from members of an organization urging him to sign the order and said he considered the calls extremely inappropriate. Sharon Dunten, assistant regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists, confirmed a small number of members of her organization called the judge. Given that the case involved alleged judicial abuse that only came to national attention because of the media, Dunten was unimpressed with Winegarden’s complaint.

“He didn’t like the criticism. The same thing with (Judge) Weaver,” she said. “Judges are always going to be criticized. When one of them takes it personally they need to step away.”

Winegarden’s reputation precedes him. In a rare feat, voters in his home county tossed him out of office in 2008. His opponent ran against him in a campaign based partially around his demeanor in the courtroom. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him a “senior judge” last November, allowing him to put his robes back on and handle cases ad hoc.

I don’t know Winegarden and I also don’t know all the reasons he did what he did, so I tried to get him to comment on the hearing. When I called and introduced myself, he greeted me with a hard sigh and asked, “Is there something wrong with my subscription?”

Cute. Beyond that, he said he didn’t want to talk about it.

“I was appointed to handle a criminal case in Pickens County and that’s what I’ve done, so that’s it,” he said.