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May God Help Us All

by Mark Stopa, Florida attorney

Wanna Buy a Government-Foreclosed Home? OK. Just Bring $10,000,000.00

Posted on June 29th, 2012 by Mark Stopa

I’ve often expressed my disgust at how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac frequently pay banks 100% of their judgment amounts in foreclosure cases. It’s an appalling dynamic in foreclosure-world, one where banks often have no incentive to modify mortgages because “our” government will pay the banks in full once the foreclosure is over (and all the banks have to do is convey title to Fannie and Freddie). Incredibly, just when I thought I couldn’t be any more appalled, somehow, my disgust with “our” government reached a new level today.

I have it on good information (directly from someone personally involved) that Fannie and Freddie are selling foreclosed homes in bulk to third-party investors. Not one at a time, not several – dozens – at heavily discounted rates. In other words, many of the homes in Florida and elsewhere that have been foreclosed, with lower and middle-class homeowners thrown onto the streets and title transferred to Fannie or Freddie, are being sold to third-party investors in bulk.

If you think that sounds like an interesting investment opportunity, a chance to purchase a new home after you were foreclosed, let me stop you. Fannie and Freddie aren’t making these investments available to just anyone. To qualify, to even get inside the door to the auction room, you must have at least $10,000,000.00 in assets, and you must be able to prove the existence of those assets via bank statements and the like.

Ten million bucks, just to get in the door.

Is this what America has become? Throwing Americans onto the streets so “our” government pays the banks to foreclose and “our” government sells those houses in bulk at discounted rates to third-party investors with an eight-figure net worth?

Apparently so.

Sigh.

You know what’s arguably even worse? Nobody is even talking about this. No news stories. No media coverage. Nothing. Would you have known about this if Mark Stopa – basically a nobody in the scope of national news and politics – hadn’t blogged about it?

Why such secrecy? Where is the media coverage? Where’s the outrage? Who is running our government, exactly? This is as big an issue as Obamacare – thousands of homeowners getting foreclosed and their homes being sold in bulk to the mega-wealthy. Why is nobody even talking about it? Is America really a land where our government takes houses from the poor and middle class and sells them in bulk at discounted rates to the mega-wealthy – and it does so completely in secret? Does anyone care?

This is why I consider this the biggest post I’ve ever written. This is what is driving the whole foreclosure crisis, and nobody knows about it. Nobody’s even talking about it. Change is not possible without awareness, and right now, all Americans are totally in the dark about this dynamic. Well, all Americans except those who have $10,000,000.00.

May God help us all.
Mark Stopa

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DeBord Report : California is going through another ‘wave’ in foreclosures | 89.3 KPCC


 

California is going through another ‘wave’ in foreclosures

By Matthew DeBord

http://www.scpr.org/blogs/economy/2012/07/12/7025/california-going-through-another-wave-foreclosures/

Foreclosures Spike As Banks Accelerate Loan Default Notices

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A for sale sign is posted in front of house in Glendale. California saw foreclosure starts pick up in June, suggesting that a new wave of defaults is underway.

For the first six months of 2012, foreclosures in California declined from the same period a year earlier. But RealtyTrac, an Irvine-based company that specializes in tracking foreclosures, reports that the state still has the fourth highest foreclosure rate in the nation. In fact, in June, default notices sent to homeowners increased from May. And year-over-year, California’s rate of foreclosure starts increased 18 percent, making it the top state for the month, the first time that California has held that slot since 2005.

I talked to RealtyTrac vice-president Daren Blomquist. He said that states with the worst foreclosure rates have remained consistent during the housing crisis. The top five haven’t moved around a lot: it’s Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, California, and Florida. He noted that the only surprise was that Georgia has moved into the top four and that Florida has slipped.

Foreclosure filings in California fell by about 11 percent in the second quarter of 2012. But in June foreclosure moved up a bit more than 12 percent over May.

Blomquist said we’ve seen this pattern before in California. He calls it a “foreclosure wave” and expects the pattern to continue, as banks cope with the national mortgage settlement that was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday and avoid flooding the market with foreclosures. Blomquist’s interpretation is that banks will work through their foreclosures gradually, so we’ll see activity ebb and flow.

“Lenders are looking at their loan portfolios and figuring out how many mortgages to set aside for modification,” he said. The banks are determining which ones likely won’t qualify and sending out notices of default, the first stage of the foreclosure process, to homeowners.

Regardless of how these waves are paced, the foreclosure crisis isn’t going away any time soon. At the current rate, Blomquist expects it to take until late 2013 or early 2014 before the country’s million-and-half foreclosures are in the rearview mirror.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

Tagged: realtytrac, notice of default, foreclosures, california, California

DeBord Report : California is going through another ‘wave’ in foreclosures | 89.3 KPCC

Court of Appeals – ATLaw


http://www.atlawblog.com/2012/06/anybody-else-want-to-be-an-appeals-court-judge/

ATLaw - The Daily Report's blog about Georgia law, business and politics'

Archive for the ‘Court of Appeals’ Category

Anybody else want to be an appeals court judge?

3:48 pm, June 26th, 2012

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Judicial Nominating Commission has officially jump-started the process of filling the vacancy on the state Court of Appeals, created by yesterday’s promotion of Judge Keith Blackwell to the state Supreme Court.

The JNC’s notice says, beginning today through Friday, July 6, it will accept applications for the Court of Appeals opening from “any qualified applicant” who did not apply for the Supreme Court vacancy. The six remaining members of the short list for the Supreme Court opening automatically will be on the short list for the Court of Appeals, unless the applicant notifies the JNC he or she doesn’t wish to be considered, the notice says.

Deal spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield told the Daily Report yesterday that those who applied for the Supreme Court but didn’t make the short list will not be considered for the Court of Appeals opening.

The notice contains the details on what those interested need to do to apply. It says the JNC will schedule interviews of new applicants “to the extent necessary.”

The members of the shortlist passed over in favor of Blackwell are DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia “C.J.” Becker; Elizabeth “Lisa” Branch, a litigator at Smith, Gambrell & Russell; Michael Brown, co-leader of Alston & Bird’s Government and Internal Investigations Group; Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge William “Billy” Ray Jr.; Macon Superior Court Judge Tilman “Tripp” Self III; and Henry County State Court Chief Judge Ben Studdard III.

Writing last night about the Blackwell appointment and Deal’s new opportunity, conservative lawyer and commentator Carrie Severino wrote for the National Review Online that she hears “great things” about Branch, noting Branch previously worked in the administration of George W. Bush.

Learn more about the Supreme Court finalists here.

Contributor: Alyson M. Palmer in Court of Appeals, Georgia Supreme Court, Judges, Judicial Nominating Commission | add commentShare  share

Court of Appeals – ATLaw

 

Hell, all we have to say about the matter, other than the obvious, is thank God Becker didn’t make it.  There is no bigger crook at DeKalb County Superior Court, than Judge Cynthia J. Becker.  See McDonald and Stegeman v. Georgia Power in DeKalb County Superior Court and see McDonald/Stegeman v. Superior Court, GA Power, et., al., in US District Court.

Encounters With Pro Se Litigants


http://www.atlantatrial.com/encounters-pro-se-litigants/ 

Encounters with pro se litigants

 by Daniel DeWoskin

 June 1st, 2011

 

We have all heard that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Many of us have had occasion to walk into a courtroom, be it in magistrate, state, or even superior court, only to find that the courtroom is packed with pro se parties waiting to have their matters adjudicated. Watching inexperienced people handle their legal matters can at times be entertaining and at other times extremely frustrating. We observe these parties fumbling with rules regarding cross-examination or the admission of evidence. It is almost always apparent that these people are uncomfortable, intimidated, and unaware of how much they do not know about prosecuting or defending a legal action. Out of necessity, desperation, or perhaps stubbornness, many people still choose to represent themselves in court.

 

Is it hubris that causes these people, these “fools,” to represent themselves? The fact is that many parties are representing themselves because they could neither find, nor afford, counsel in a particular matter. These situations can be simply tragic. Many times, these persons are out-maneuvered by an attorney because they fail to acknowledge procedure or to understand the application of law to a particular issue. These people may lose their cases solely because their temperament or demeanor has overshadowed the presentation of evidence in their cases. There is not much of a fix to this problem, as the courts cannot take it upon themselves to advise pro se parties lest they cease to be impartial to some extent.

 

As attorneys, it can be like watching a train wreck. And yet, even watching the least capable pro se parties, I have to give them credit for having the nerve to walk into court, to stand before a group of strangers, and to engage in public speaking for which the outcome may have dire consequences. It is refreshing and impressive when some of these individuals have taken the time to conduct research into their legal issues and patiently wait for certain cues from the court as they advocate for their position. We have all seen these cues ignored at times by the most experienced and knowledgeable attorneys.

 

I myself have dealt with pro se parties and can say that I have always found it to be troublesome. When dealing with a pro se party, I am always cautious to avoid ever giving legal advice to the other party. I have a duty to my client and my responsibility to zealously represent his or her interests cannot be compromised. I also have a duty to deal fairly and honestly with my opponent. In these situations, it can be challenging to set the right tone so that I do not inadvertently escalate any hostility that may already be present in the litigation. Even by making very deliberate choices as to how I speak with my opponent can backfire, causing more work and headache for everyone involved, including the court.

 

Any lawyer who has dealt with pro se parties is likely to say that there is some measure of comfort when dealing with represented parties. Pro se parties are always personally involved in the matter at hand and can often have difficulty taking a step back so that they might see their opponents’ arguments for what they are. If these people were not personally involved, they would not deem the matter worth their time or attention in the first place. When both parties are represented by experienced and professional counsel, knowledge of law and courtesy generally help govern the course of litigation. This is quite the contrast between the emotion and intimidation that can be in play in pro se litigation.

 

There are also times where we as attorneys sit down in a crowded court and have the person seated beside us turn and ask, “Are you an attorney?” This usually means that we are about to be asked if we can answer a quick question that is never quick and never isolated. When I find myself in this position, I usually resort to recommending that the person ask for a continuance and seek counsel, but I am always professional and polite so that I do not seem to be turning my back on them. As opposed to explaining that I need to be paid for my services, which is true, I have found that people respond better when I explain that without a thorough review of the particular facts of both parties and their assertions, I am not able to provide them with a reliable answer.

 

It is extremely important in our justice system for people to have access to the courts, even when they cannot afford counsel. Our judges do a good job demonstrating patience and appreciation for the rights of pro se parties, and yet I am continually perplexed by how many people will try to handle a complex litigation matter without doing any homework. While I doubt these same people would handle their own dental work, sometimes I just have to wonder.

 

I am disappointed when I see pro se parties get intimidated by attorneys in court. There are those rare moments when one of these parties, outgunned and out of their element, has done the legwork and prevails in court. If you have never seen this in action, it is something to behold. Recently, I spoke to a young woman who succeeded in defending herself in a civil action. It was rather remarkable. I was impressed by the quality of her research and preparation, and she was impressed by how ignorant and unprepared her attorney counterpart was.

 

I suppose the takeaway from this encounter was that we should never take our opponents for granted. So, while a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, there is no substitute for preparation, knowledge of the law and facts, and humility in a court of law. As lawyers, we should try to find the balance between stressing the value of qualified counsel and understanding why people may still choose to represent themselves. Instead of dismissing all these people as foolhardy, perhaps we should first caution them, then suggest where they might find the resources to empower them in their decision. In the end, if they do follow through with the research, it should demonstrate that what we do is unique, precise, and specialized.

 

As lawyers, we are aware of the dangers of pro se litigation. We know the troubles that lurk in handling matters without knowing the facts, the law, and the applicable procedure. For those who do not know these dangers, we must act as stewards. We may benefit these people and the system in general without giving out free legal advice, but also without treating what we do as beyond the reach of a dedicated individual with something to prove. Once again, many of these individuals do not have a choice, and nobody in our community benefits from a system that breeds intimidation and contempt.

 

Article appears in the DeKalb Bar Association Newsletter

 

See Original Article>>

 

Encounters With Pro Se Litigants


http://www.atlantatrial.com/encounters-pro-se-litigants/ 

Encounters with pro se litigants

 by Daniel DeWoskin

 June 1st, 2011

 

We have all heard that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Many of us have had occasion to walk into a courtroom, be it in magistrate, state, or even superior court, only to find that the courtroom is packed with pro se parties waiting to have their matters adjudicated. Watching inexperienced people handle their legal matters can at times be entertaining and at other times extremely frustrating. We observe these parties fumbling with rules regarding cross-examination or the admission of evidence. It is almost always apparent that these people are uncomfortable, intimidated, and unaware of how much they do not know about prosecuting or defending a legal action. Out of necessity, desperation, or perhaps stubbornness, many people still choose to represent themselves in court.

 

Is it hubris that causes these people, these “fools,” to represent themselves? The fact is that many parties are representing themselves because they could neither find, nor afford, counsel in a particular matter. These situations can be simply tragic. Many times, these persons are out-maneuvered by an attorney because they fail to acknowledge procedure or to understand the application of law to a particular issue. These people may lose their cases solely because their temperament or demeanor has overshadowed the presentation of evidence in their cases. There is not much of a fix to this problem, as the courts cannot take it upon themselves to advise pro se parties lest they cease to be impartial to some extent.

 

As attorneys, it can be like watching a train wreck. And yet, even watching the least capable pro se parties, I have to give them credit for having the nerve to walk into court, to stand before a group of strangers, and to engage in public speaking for which the outcome may have dire consequences. It is refreshing and impressive when some of these individuals have taken the time to conduct research into their legal issues and patiently wait for certain cues from the court as they advocate for their position. We have all seen these cues ignored at times by the most experienced and knowledgeable attorneys.

 

I myself have dealt with pro se parties and can say that I have always found it to be troublesome. When dealing with a pro se party, I am always cautious to avoid ever giving legal advice to the other party. I have a duty to my client and my responsibility to zealously represent his or her interests cannot be compromised. I also have a duty to deal fairly and honestly with my opponent. In these situations, it can be challenging to set the right tone so that I do not inadvertently escalate any hostility that may already be present in the litigation. Even by making very deliberate choices as to how I speak with my opponent can backfire, causing more work and headache for everyone involved, including the court.

 

Any lawyer who has dealt with pro se parties is likely to say that there is some measure of comfort when dealing with represented parties. Pro se parties are always personally involved in the matter at hand and can often have difficulty taking a step back so that they might see their opponents’ arguments for what they are. If these people were not personally involved, they would not deem the matter worth their time or attention in the first place. When both parties are represented by experienced and professional counsel, knowledge of law and courtesy generally help govern the course of litigation. This is quite the contrast between the emotion and intimidation that can be in play in pro se litigation.

 

There are also times where we as attorneys sit down in a crowded court and have the person seated beside us turn and ask, “Are you an attorney?” This usually means that we are about to be asked if we can answer a quick question that is never quick and never isolated. When I find myself in this position, I usually resort to recommending that the person ask for a continuance and seek counsel, but I am always professional and polite so that I do not seem to be turning my back on them. As opposed to explaining that I need to be paid for my services, which is true, I have found that people respond better when I explain that without a thorough review of the particular facts of both parties and their assertions, I am not able to provide them with a reliable answer.

 

It is extremely important in our justice system for people to have access to the courts, even when they cannot afford counsel. Our judges do a good job demonstrating patience and appreciation for the rights of pro se parties, and yet I am continually perplexed by how many people will try to handle a complex litigation matter without doing any homework. While I doubt these same people would handle their own dental work, sometimes I just have to wonder.

 

I am disappointed when I see pro se parties get intimidated by attorneys in court. There are those rare moments when one of these parties, outgunned and out of their element, has done the legwork and prevails in court. If you have never seen this in action, it is something to behold. Recently, I spoke to a young woman who succeeded in defending herself in a civil action. It was rather remarkable. I was impressed by the quality of her research and preparation, and she was impressed by how ignorant and unprepared her attorney counterpart was.

 

I suppose the takeaway from this encounter was that we should never take our opponents for granted. So, while a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, there is no substitute for preparation, knowledge of the law and facts, and humility in a court of law. As lawyers, we should try to find the balance between stressing the value of qualified counsel and understanding why people may still choose to represent themselves. Instead of dismissing all these people as foolhardy, perhaps we should first caution them, then suggest where they might find the resources to empower them in their decision. In the end, if they do follow through with the research, it should demonstrate that what we do is unique, precise, and specialized.

 

As lawyers, we are aware of the dangers of pro se litigation. We know the troubles that lurk in handling matters without knowing the facts, the law, and the applicable procedure. For those who do not know these dangers, we must act as stewards. We may benefit these people and the system in general without giving out free legal advice, but also without treating what we do as beyond the reach of a dedicated individual with something to prove. Once again, many of these individuals do not have a choice, and nobody in our community benefits from a system that breeds intimidation and contempt.

 

Article appears in the DeKalb Bar Association Newsletter

 

See Original Article>>

 

Daily Report: Public shut out of Georgia courts


http://www.dailyreportonline.com/PubArticleFriendlyDRO.jsp?id=1202561653020

Public shut out of Georgia courts

R. Robin McDonald

Daily Report

07-03-2012

Judges across Georgia are closing courtrooms to the general public, citing as reasons a lack of space and security concerns.

They are doing so even though the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2010 vacated a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that had upheld the closure of a DeKalb County courtroom and the removal of members of the public during jury voir dire. The U.S. justices said at the time that courtrooms should remain open to the public except in rare circumstances.

Since then, courtroom closures have been challenged in DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb and Towns counties in Georgia’s appellate courts. Two weeks ago, the Southern Center for Human Rights sued the Cordele Judicial Circuit, claiming that its superior court judges are continuing to bar public access to court hearings despite a consent agreement in 2004 that they would stop the practice.

The appellate challenges to closed courtrooms across the state have garnered mixed success, but Judicial Qualifications Commission officials are concerned.
Closing courtrooms, said JQC Chairman John Allen, “could be a violation” of state judicial canons “depending on the set of facts surrounding the closing.”

JQC director Jeffrey Davis told the Daily Report that in his work observing judges in action around the state, he is often met at the courtroom doors by local deputies who ask for his credentials and question why he is there.

“I’ve personally experienced the chill that members of the public would feel,” he said. “I’m a lawyer. It’s not that I’m under-dressed for court.”
Once a member of the public has passed through courthouse metal detectors or security at a courthouse entrance, Davis said, “No citizens should be questioned about the reason they are in a public courtroom.”

But, he continued, “It seems to be the modus operandi around the state for courts to have deputies who question those who are simply in the court without business before the court. People ought to be able to watch their government in action. And justice which is done in secret—or a feeling by those who are coming to the courthouse that somehow they don’t have a right to be there—chills the public’s ability not only to access the courts but also to have confidence in the judicial system.”

DeKalb County
Last year, DeKalb State Court Judge Barbara Mobley resigned her post to end a JQC ethics investigation that included allegations she had interfered with the public’s access to a public courtroom. Mobley posted signs that restricted access to court hearings and directed court personnel to ask court observers to identify themselves and state their business, “thereby chilling the public’s right to observe matters before the court,” according to the JQC’s report to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Daily Report reported last year that Mobley was one of a number of DeKalb judges who had posted signs on their courtroom doors limiting courtroom access to criminal defendants, their lawyers and alleged victims. The sign on Mobley’s door said, “We do not have space for extra people.”

Allen told the Daily Report last week that after Mobley resigned, he asked the DeKalb judges “to please meet and reconsider their policy of automatically closing their courtrooms as opposed to making a case-by-case decision.”

“Openness of course is such a basic principle of the law in Georgia jurisprudence and U.S. constitutional jurisprudence,” Allen continued. “You erode the confidence in the integrity and fairness of the courts by closing the courts as a matter of course.”

“Ours was just a courtesy call,” he said, “so that the conduct of the court didn’t rise to the level of being egregious.”

Allen said he also reminded the DeKalb bench of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Presley v. Georgia, 130 S. Ct. 721, which slapped the Georgia Supreme Court for upholding a decision by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Linda Hunter to close her courtroom during jury selection in a criminal case.

In its ruling vacating the Georgia decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extends to the voir dire of prospective jurors and that, “Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials.”

The decision did allow for exceptions, holding that, “The right to an open trial may give way in certain cases to other rights or interests, such as the accused’s right to a fair trial or the government’s interest in inhibiting disclosure of sensitive information.”

But, it stated, “Such circumstances are rare, however, and the balance of interests must be struck with special care. The party seeking to close a hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest, the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure.”

Last year, DeKalb Chief State Court Chief Judge Wayne Purdom told the Daily Report that he posted signs limiting access to his courtroom on days when he heard jail pleas, when numerous prisoners were in court or on arraignment days when as many as 100 people might need seats. On those days, he said, members of the public were only admitted “by request.”

While acknowledging that courtroom access “is a public right,” Purdom told the Daily Report that “regulation of entrance to the courtroom is a case-by-case situation.”
Purdom also agreed that signs barring entry might have “a little bit of a chilling effect.” But, he continued, “I think there are limited situations where control of access is appropriate, although keeping the public out is not.”

Fulton challenges
Last month Atlanta attorney Brian Steel argued before the Georgia Court of Appeals that a judge’s decision to close a Fulton County courtroom had violated a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights.

Steel appealed the decision of then-Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington, who in the 2009 rape trial of Corsen Stewart apparently barred the public, including the defendant’s mother, from the courtroom during jury voir dire in a situation nearly identical to the DeKalb closure that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Steel, who was not Stewart’s lawyer during the trial, said he took the case on appeal after Stewart’s mother came to see him, told him she had been locked out of the courtroom when attorneys were questioning potential jurors for her son’s case and burst into tears in his office.

In 2010, Steel asked the Georgia Supreme Court to overturn the 2006 Fulton County murder conviction of Travion Reed, basing one argument  on Judge Craig Schwall Sr.’s decision to close the courtroom during the testimony of two witnesses. Prosecutors countered that the courtroom’s closure was warranted because the two witnesses in question feared for their safety. A third witness in the case had been shot a short time after the murder, and a fourth witness had been threatened with a screwdriver in an attack that prosecutors claimed was likely linked to the defendant.

At the time, neither Reid nor his attorney objected. That omission proved critical to the Georgia Supreme Court which—three weeks after its decision in Presley was vacated—affirmed Schwall’s decision to bar public access to his courtroom during the testimony.

Steel did not represent Reed at his trial.

In an opinion written by Justice George Carley, the high court held 6-1 that in order to prevail, Reid “must show that he was prejudiced by counsel’s decision not to object to the brief closing of the courtroom. … Indeed, to hold otherwise would encourage defense counsel to manipulate the justice system by intentionally failing to object in order to ensure an automatic reversal on appeal.”

But Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, the lone dissenting vote, countered that, “No reason was articulated to support closing the courtroom” for the two witnesses when “closure was not sought for others who not only might have been, but actually were, placed in peril because of their testimony.”

“The trial court’s findings were clearly inadequate to support closure of the courtroom,” her dissent stated. “Moreover, the trial court failed to consider any alternatives to closure,” she said.

“Although the majority concludes that Reid has not shown prejudice,” Hunstein concluded, “Reid is not required to do so in order to obtain relief for a structural error which was a violation of the public-trial right.”

Steel said last week that “Prejudice is pretty hard to show when you’re closing a courtroom. It’s an almost unobtainable bar that the Supreme Court set.”
Steel said that in the Stewart appeal he argued before the state appellate court on June 13, “I’m challenging the Reid decision. … It’s primed to have a new discussion about it.”

Fulton County is not the only place where Steel has challenged closed courtrooms. In 2010, Steel also asked the Court of Appeals to overturn a Towns County defendant’s conviction because the judge moved jury selection to a nearby church and barred the public, including the defendant’s wife and daughter, from attending. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction last March on other grounds without addressing the courtroom closure.

Cordele claims
Last month the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta filed suit against the Cordele Judicial Circuit’s three superior court judges and the sheriffs of Ben Hill and Crisp counties in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Georgia in Albany, claiming that county court officials are systemically barring the public from criminal court hearings that they say should be open to the public.

Stephen Bright, the center’s president and senior counsel, noted that in 2003, as part of a larger civil rights suit on behalf of the county’s indigent defendants, the Southern Center accused circuit officials of restricting public access to the courts. But Bright said the 2003 suit was dismissed in 2004 after circuit officials promised that courtrooms would remain open.

John Pridgen, chief superior court judge of the Cordele Circuit and a defendant in both suits, has called the 2003 allegations “complete fabrications” claiming, “There was never anything inappropriate about what we did then and what we do now.”

Another Cordele Circuit judge noted in a letter filed with the Southern Center’s complaint that the courtroom in the Crisp County Law Enforcement Center is particularly small, with limited seating.

Southern Center attorney Gerry Weber told the Daily Report last month that the center also has received anecdotal evidence that other courtrooms are being closed “in a lot of different places” across the state and is launching an investigation to determine the extent of the problem.

‘Keeps us free’
Courtroom public access issue came to the fore in Cobb County last year, when former Governor Roy Barnes secured the dismissal of an indictment against the CEO of the Cobb EMC because the grand jury presentments were made inside the new courthouse while its doors were locked and deputies barred access via a separate catwalk entrance.

The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the indictment’s dismissal in March, ruling that, “The Georgia Supreme Court has held that any failure to return the indictment in open court is per se injurious to the defendant.”

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who dissented in the state Supreme Court’s Presley decision, said in an interview with the Daily Report that the U.S. Supreme Court opinion vacating Georgia’s Presley decision “made it pretty clear … that you cannot, as a matter of policy, close courtrooms.”
In her dissent in Presley, Sears specifically addressed arguments based on lack of space.

“A room that is so small that it cannot accommodate the public,” she wrote, “is a room that is too small to accommodate a constitutional criminal trial.”
But the former chief justice, now a partner at Schiff Hardin, told the Daily Report that judges still may close a courtroom “in very narrow circumstances.” But their reasons  for doing so, “have to be well articulated,” she said. “It has to be on a case-by-case basis … It also has to be a last resort.”

Sears said she doesn’t belittle judges who struggle with issues of space and security.

“That’s what created the majority in the Presley case,” she said. “It wasn’t that the judges felt you should keep people out. They saw what a problem it was in these tiny courtrooms trying to manage things. You get very sympathetic when a trial judge is trying to … keep things secure.”

The issue, she explained, is one of competing values. But to trump the value of open courtrooms, she said, “would take some effort. … Public access is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. It’s what keeps us free.” 

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Daily Report: Public shut out of Georgia courts