Three Georgia judges and two sheriffs have agreed to stop limiting public access to courtrooms in two south Georgia counties.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher found out the judges had previously promised an open-door policy, then started closing the doors again.
The Rev. James Davis wanted to attend a criminal court hearing for a member of his church in Fitzgerald, the county seat of Ben Hill County. Davis was shocked when he was turned away by the bailiff.
“Not here in America. Never did I think I’d see the say we’d be denied access to a courtroom,” Davis said.
Forty miles away in Cordele in Crisp County – part of the same judicial circuit – Joyce Scales had a similar experience. She had driven 200 miles from Lithonia to attend a hearing for her nephew, only to be shut out of the courtroom.
“I was told that I would not be allowed to go in unless my relative, which was my nephew, pled guilty,” Scales said.
Davis said he was definitely not denied because the courtroom was full. He said he was denied access even after pointing out empty seats.
Davis and Scales are two of four people denied entry to a courtroom who took their complaints to federal court, suing the judges and sheriffs of the Cordele Circuit Court. Both told Belcher the suit is not about money.
“It’s about respect,” Scales said.
Atteeyah Hollie of the Southern Center for Human Rights said the lawsuit is about the unconstitutional closures of courtrooms.
“We sued these same counties about these same practices almost 10 years ago. We dismissed the lawsuit because we thought that the courtrooms would be open, and we were wrong,” Hollie said.
The three judges asked the federal court to dismiss the suit, arguing that they issued a standing order to move all their criminal proceedings to the main courthouse in each county to guarantee more seating and that they ordered that people no longer be denied access.
But Hollie and her four plaintiffs were not satisfied that the judges would continue to abide by their new order.
A high percentage of the criminal defendants in the Cordele judicial court are black, and three of the four people who filed the suit are black. The judges and sheriffs are all white.
Joyce Scales said she thinks the issue is racial. Davis said he is not sure.
“I couldn’t say whether it’s a racial issue or not, but I know it’s an issue that shouldn’t be,” Davis said.
Their attorney said the closures affect black and white Georgians, and the real issue is that the public has no way of gauging whether the system is fair if the doors are closed.
“And that is the message that we want to send to people, that all of these proceedings are being held in secret. We should just trust everybody because they’re judges or sheriffs?” Hollie said.
Now, a federal judge will make sure the practice stops. The Southern Center for Human Rights announced Monday that the judges and sheriffs have agreed to settle.
Among the terms, people entering a courtroom will not have to prove they are related to a defendant and citizens will not have to answer questions from court of law enforcement personnel about why they want to come to court.
The defendants also agreed to pay $40,000 in legal fees.