Two years ago, a case originating in DeKalb County Georgia went before the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was whether judges could close a courtroom to the public for any reason. The court found that judges must do whatever possible to keep their courts open, except in rare circumstances. But today, some Georgia judges are still making the public feel very unwelcome, if not locking them out altogether.
According to the Daily Report Online, some courtrooms in the state are staffed with deputies at their doors, deputies that aren’t just there for show of security, but to question anyone who tries to enter the court.
The director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), who travels from courthouse to courthouse, watching judges at work, has experienced himself what it’s like to be stopped by deputies at the door. They ask why he’s there and what his credentials are.
“I’ve personally experienced the chill that members of the public would feel,” said Jeffrey Davis. I’m a lawyer. It’s not that I’m underdressed for court.”
Sure you might have to go through metal detectors to get into the building, but Davis says, after that point, “No citizens should be questioned about the reason they are in a public courtroom.”
A criminal court that is open to the public is accountable to the public. When courtroom proceedings take place behind closed doors, no one knows for certain what is going on and there is a sort of secretive and suspicious element at play.
“Openness of course is such a basic principle of the law in Georgia jurisprudence and U.S. constitutional jurisprudence, you erode the confidence in the integrity and fairness of the courts by closing the courts as a matter of course,” said Jon Allen, chairman of the JQC.
There are several cases in the Georgia courts right now challenging decisions made by judges on the basis of closed courtroom proceedings.
One DeKalb State Court Judge, Barbara Mobley, has resigned under the attention that was given to her after she made moves to close her courtroom. Mobley was under a JQC ethics investigation when she stepped down from the bench, accused of posting signs outside of her courtrooms, limiting court access to only defendants, lawyers and alleged victims, and for posting deputies outside of the doors to sort of act as the courtroom bouncers.
A fair courtroom experience is crucial when you are facing criminal charges. When you are shuffled into a room and no one else is allowed, the feeling can be quite frightening. Having an attorney on your side who understands your rights and isn’t afraid to speak up for them is crucial.