Originally created 01/02/00

Courts mostly open to public



Sunshine laws don't apply to the judicial system, the third prong of U.S. government, but the U.S. Constitution does.

"The openness of the judicial process is such a hallowed tradition that it even found a place in the U.S. Constitution," said Ron Carlson, University of Georgia School of Law professor. Not only are people promised open courts by the Constitution, but the Georgia constitution also guarantees the right of public trials.

"In my opinion," said Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, "the rule of law is what holds our society together ... it makes us who we are."

In establishing a system of government, the founders of the United States insisted on open government and open courts -- meeting "in the sunshine" -- so that the people could judge for themselves and make necessary changes, Mr. Baker said.

"Nowhere is that more important than in the judiciary," he said.

In a recent series of articles, newspapers throughout Georgia joined to publish the results of surveys of access to public records maintained by government agencies.

The investigation showed that by and large, cities and counties obey the open records law in Georgia, providing public records not just to news reporters but also to nonmedia members of the public, who have an equal right to information.

Though the open records laws don't apply to the court system, "By and large the judiciary system is open to the public," Mr. Baker said.

The court system is open to the public, but effective access to the system could be better, Mr. Baker and Mr. Carlson said.

Part of that problem is not knowing how the judiciary works or if court proceedings will be held.

David Foster and his sister, Lisa Kuhl-Mann, were shocked to learn that the man who participated in the slayings of their mother and stepfather, and whom they assumed was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole or appeals, had an appeal hearing in federal court.

"We just want to know what's going on and what he's trying to do," Mr. Foster said.

Mr. Foster was only 14 years old when two men kidnapped, robbed and killed George and Euclid Alread in March 1984. One killer would himself be slain, but a second man, Jody Allen, would be arrested and would plead guilty in McDuffie County Superior Court.

Mr. Foster went with his then-19-year-old sister and other family members to court the day Mr. Allen pleaded guilty and received his sentence. Their knowledge of what happened to their mother and stepfather is limited.

"I remember going in the courtroom, and I remember the judge saying he (Mr. Allen) should have gotten the death penalty except that he wasn't the triggerman," he said.

But Mr. Foster and his sister -- and anyone else -- can learn more about the case. They can read through the prosecution's case file, read all court documents generated in the case in the past decade and in the future, and attend any future court hearing.

And under a state law that Mr. Baker sponsored as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, all crime victims or their family members are entitled to advance warning of any court hearings or parole decisions.

Mr. Baker's office is currently defending the state of Georgia against Mr. Allen's appeal in federal court.

"We can do more, but we are doing better," Mr. Baker said.

Victims get a lot more assistance these days in Georgia courts, thanks to victims' rights law. Every judicial district but one has a victims assistance program, said Sheila Stahl, program coordinator for the Augusta Judicial Circuit's program.

Part of the job she and two other full-time employees do is help victims and their families understand how the judicial system works, when court hearings or trials will be held and what information they can see for themselves.

Ms. Stahl helped a woman file an open records request to get access to the file about her father's slaying 22 years ago. No one ever told her what had happened, and she wanted to know.

"She felt so much better," Ms. Stahl said.

What scares the victims assistance workers is missing something. Sometimes, no one except the attorneys involved and a judge know when a particular hearing will be held. Recently, for example, Ms. Stahl had only 10 minutes' warning before bond hearings were held for people accused of child molestation and assault, she said. There was no time to notify the parents of the alleged child molestation victim.

While courts generally publish trial calendars in advance -- showing which cases are scheduled -- Mr. Baker said he believes that the court system assumes only those directly involved in cases are particularly interested in court proceedings.

"If you don't go and watch (the judiciary system) you won't know how it works," Mr. Baker said. "It's more than just learning how your judges as elected officials work, it's knowing your government.

"And unless we know our government, we can't make it better."

ReachSandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.