Valdosta Daily Times

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November 6, 2013

Settlement reached in suit over Ga. court access

ALBANY, Ga. — A group focused on fighting human rights violations against inmates has reached a settlement with three south Georgia judges it had accused of denying public access to proceedings in jail courtrooms.

The settlement agreement was filed Monday in federal court in Albany. It reflected an agreement between the Southern Center for Human Rights and three judges in the Cordele Judicial Circuit: Chief Superior Court Judge John Pridgen, Superior Court Judge T. Christopher Hughes and Superior Court Judge Robert Chasteen, Jr.

The suit was filed in June 2012 on behalf of people who were denied access to hearings.

The settlement says courtrooms will be open and that the public won’t be subject to questioning or approval to enter. It also says that requiring a person who wants to enter a courtroom to prove their relationship to a defendant or making access conditional on the plea entered by the defendant violates the person’s First Amendment right of access.

The settlement also says that signs on courtroom doors should clearly inform members of the public of their right to observe court hearings and that judges shouldn’t use jail courtrooms for criminal proceedings except under certain limited circumstances.

Before filing the lawsuit, the Southern Center had been sending investigators and law students into courtrooms across the state to look into the issue of courtroom access.

Some people had been told that they will not be able to enter unless the family member they have come to see intends to enter a guilty plea, and some who had been allowed entry noticed multiple empty seats inside, even as people sat outside waiting to get in, the Southern Center said when the lawsuit was filed. That violated the public’s constitutional right to attend hearings in criminal cases, the lawsuit claimed.


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