Atlanta Attorneys Are On a Roll For Disciplinary Action, Bout Time Some Get Caught Up in Their Crimes!

Two Lawyers Hit With Default Judgment in Suits by Clients

Greg Land, Daily Report

Robert Thompson JR Vert 201412121516
Atlanta Attorney Robert Thompson Jr.
John Disney/Staff

Two Georgia attorneys—both under suspension by the State Bar of Georgia—have defaulted on a 2013 suit filed by a Douglas County couple who say they paid the lawyers thousands of dollars to forestall foreclosure proceedings only to lose their home when neither lawyer performed any services.

One of the defendants is attorney Robert Thompson Jr., who was suspended earlier this year after failing to respond to an ongoing investigation by the bar’s disciplinary committee. Thompson also was arrested in February and charged with misappropriating $37,440 of a client’s funds; his then-attorney told the Daily Report he had paid back more than $30,000 of the money.

A criminal charge of theft by conversion is pending against Thompson in Fulton County Superior Court. The phone number for his firm, the Thompson Law Group, has been disconnected.

The other attorney, Rodd Walton, has no disciplinary record with the bar but is under suspension for nonpayment of dues. Walton was arrested in 2009 when he attempted to enter the Cobb County Courthouse with a loaded handgun on the day he was to attend a hearing concerning a motion for reconsideration after being ordered to pay a former client $43,000 in restitution and attorney fees.

When his 2009 arrest was reported in this newspaper, a website for Walton’s Legacy Law Group said he was a former deputy counsel for Glock Inc., the maker of the gun he was carrying when he was arrested. On Thursday there was no immediate response to a message left on Legacy’s phone system, and no email is listed for Walton with the bar.

In the Fulton County suit, Michael and Cindy Bentley’s pro se complaint said they fell behind on their mortgage and in October 2011 paid Walton $3,000 to fight foreclosure proceedings. Walton “did absolutely nothing” on their behalf, it said, and when they requested information on their case he demanded another $3,500.

The Bentleys refused and demanded their $3,000 back. Walton first agreed, then told them he would refund nothing, it said.

In March 2012, they retained Thompson for $5,750. He “did nothing for a full year,” then demanded $500 to file a complaint. Thompson filed the complaint but failed to respond to the mortgage bank’s motion to dismiss or to inform the Bentleys that it had been filed, according to their complaint.

The bank’s motion went unanswered, and the court granted it by default. The Bentleys’ house was foreclosed.

Neither lawyer responded to the Bentleys’ suit, and they too moved for a default judgment. According to an order entered Thursday by State Court Judge Patsy Porter, Thompson appeared at an Oct. 15 hearing on the default motion and said that he had filed an answer with the clerk but that it had not been uploaded to the court’s e-filing system.

Porter instructed Thompson to upload a copy of his answer, but he failed to do so, she wrote.

OCCUPY.COM Expose Courts Blocking the Public From Sitting In On Trials In Georgia Courts, What Better Way to Show How Corrupt The Courts Are?

OCCUPY.COM EXPOSES GEORGIA’S COURTS DENYING THE PUBLIC ACCESS TO COURT PROCEEDINGS!

I am quite pleased that someone took notice. The Judges in Georgia are akin to little despots. No doubt, a Judge is God in their Courtroom, but they don’t have the right to Deny the public access, so that they can violate one’s Civil and Constitutional Rights while they sneakily do it.

accused flanked by attorneys at sentencing court

EXPOSED: GEORGIA’S COURTS ARE BREAKING THE LAW BY DENYING PUBLIC ACCESS
TUE, 9/24/2013 – BY TANYA GLOVER

Courtrooms aren’t just a place where justice is served and legal decisions are made. They are also a place for the public to go and see how the justice system works: people enjoy viewing trials and hearings, even if they have no personal stake in them. Viewing public trials is the public’s legal right.

However, revelations by a judicial oversight commission in Georgia show that numerous judges in the state, including some in Atlanta, are violating the law by denying public access to courtrooms in cases ranging from bail hearings to standard trials.

There are some cases in which closing courtrooms to the public is legal, and the circumstances for this are carefully outlined in official Georgia State documents that make the points for legality clear. But according to a recent report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, investigations by the state’s judicial oversight commission found the practice of sealing off courtroom access widespread across Georgia — and in most cases, illegally.

Instead of typical open courts, there are now signs posted on courtroom doors stating access is denied to either the general public or specific groups of people, including kids. Bailiffs sometimes stand in place of the signs, blocking entry to the court despite people’s legal right to go in, said Robert Ingram, an attorney from Marietta, Ga., and chairman of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission.

“We’ve had our own investigators and commissioners go out and visit a courtroom and they have been greeted by a bailiff or a deputy sheriff and been told to state their business or otherwise they don’t need to be there,” Ingram said.

But why the closed rooms and bans on view judicial proceedings in the first place? Under Georgia’s law, closing off or banning someone from the courtroom can be done at a judge’s discretion. For instance, an unruly or disruptive person, whether child or adult, can be removed. Or there may be a case not considered proper for people under the age of 18 to attend.

More often, however, judges these days claim they are keeping out the public because of lack of space in the courtroom. One instance that put this closed court behavior in the spotlight was the jury selection for Andrea Sneiderman, in which DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams lifted the public ban stating that people who wished to be present for the selection had the right to do so.

Seemingly arbitrary court closures by judges in the Peach State are nothing new. Back in 2011, Barbra Mobley, a DeKalb County State Court Judge, resigned after investigations were launched by the Judicial Qualifications Commission alleging that her court featured bailiffs questioning people illegally about why they wanted to observe the cases on the docket.

The phenomenon is occurring statewide. In both Crisp and Ben Hill counties, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed suit against the practice of closing courts to the public. In those counties, it’s been common that courts remain closed off even to the family members of both victims and the accused, other than their attendance at guilt pleas during the trials’ conclusions.

Further investigations have showed that closed courts are more common than first thought. According Gerry Weber of SCHR, this is causing a major problem with transparency. “A closed courtroom is one that is less accountable to the public. What is done behind closed doors can be different to what is done in the cold light of day,” he said.

Many judges are following the closed court lead, including Judge T. Jackson Bedford of the Fulton County Superior Court, Judge Clarence Seeliger of the DeKalb County Superior Court, and Judge Patsy Porter of Fulton State Court. Attempts by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to contact these servants of the people were unsuccessful, as were the attempts made by Occupy.com.

There are some positive signs as well, however. Judge Christopher Brasher of Fulton Superior Court says he was unaware that the practice of closing courts was occurring in his courtroom, and quickly put a stop to it. Brasher attributed the action to “overzealous deputies, who provide security and order.” He has since ordered that no one be keep out of the court, and that no signs excluding any specific group be put up without his written consent.

Judges Todd Markle and Robert McBurney, both of Fulton Superior Court, say they were not aware the public was being deterred with signs from entering their courts, and that this step was taken without their permission. However, there is debate about the judges’ knowledge of the situation. Each county sheriff’s department is responsible for court security, and Fulton County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Tracy Flanagan says they do not make or affix signs nor are signs permitted without the consent of the presiding judge.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission issued an opinion on the matter, from the commission’s director Jeff Davis who said massive amounts of complaints have come from the public about access to courtrooms. “Our efforts to educate judges about these issues have resulted in the type of response we would have anticipated,” said Davis.

“Judges are complying with the opinion and modifying practices accordingly. Since the issuance of our Opinion, we have been encouraged by the response of judges and the willingness to bring their courts into full compliance with the law.”

Meredith Hobbs Brings Us the Next Crooked Lawyer Story

Morris Hardwick Schneider Accuses Founder of Embezzling $30 Million

Meredith Hobbs, Daily Report

Nathan E. Hardwick IV
Nathan E. Hardwick IV

Related Article: Hardwick Denies Embezzling from Firm


Residential real estate firm Morris Hardwick Schneider alleges that founder Nathan Hardwick IV embezzled more than $30 million from the firm and its affiliated title company, LandCastle Title.

In a suit filed Monday in Fulton County Superior Court, the firm claims Hardwick used the money to pay for casino expenses, private jet rides, a luxury Buckhead condo and real estate investments.

The two firms allege in the complaint that Hardwick raided the trust and escrow accounts that the firms maintain for residential mortgage closings and then created false bank statements and altered accounting records to hide the deficits.

Hardwick was listed as MHS’s managing partner and as the board chairman and CEO for LandCastle Title in a biography that has been deleted from MHS’s website.

A nanny who answered the phone at Hardwick’s residence at the St. Regis in Buckhead said he was not at home.

LandCastle’s lawyer, W. Reese Willis III of Fidelity National Law Group, declined to comment on active litigation. “The complaint speaks for itself,” he said.

Art Morris, another founding partner of MHS, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did MHS’s lawyer, Jeffrey Schneider of Weissman, Nowack, Curry & Wilco.

Fidelity National Title Group bought a 70 percent interest in LandCastle Title, one of its agents, after the escrow account losses were discovered, according to a letter Fidelity National posted Monday to MHS and LandCastles’ joint website.

A “significant shortage” in the accounts of MHS and LandCastle prompted the acquisition and Fidelity National is funding the shortages in return for the ownership interest in LandCastle, according to the letter. Fidelity National Title Group is owned by Fidelity National Financial.

Hardwick has resigned from MHS and Mark Wittstadt is now the managing partner, according to the letter, which was signed by Wittstadt and David Baum, the Southeast regional manager for Fidelity National Title Group who is now the president of LandCastle Title.

According to the suit, Hardwick spent $4 million from MHS’s trust accounts in wire transfers to casinos, $1 million to pay private jet companies, and $645,000 to cover losses from failed property investments.

He diverted $6.3 million from MHS’s trust accounts to a personal holding company called Divot, according to the suit, which names Divot as a co-defendant. According to Hardwick’s firm bio, he is an “avid golfer.”

Hardwick partially financed the February 2013 purchase of a $3 million unit at the St. Regis in Buckhead with funds from MHS and LandCastle, according to the suit, and siphoned off another $390,000 in regular payments to himself from MHS’s trust accounts, after draining the operating accounts.

The suit alleges that Hardwick has been embezzling money for at least 18 months, saying the $390,000 in personal payouts from the MHS trust accounts occurred between January 2012 and July 2014.

‘The far-reaching impact on lenders, realtors, law firms and consumers would have been a catastrophe had our parent company, Fidelity National Financial Inc. not stepped in with the capital and resources available to us and a plan to allow them to move forward,” said Fidelity National Title’s state manager Jim Petropoulos in an email to members of the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia.

MHS and LandCastle Title are headquartered in Atlanta. They have more than 50 offices in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Ohio.

 

The Next Article on This Attorney:

Hardwick Denies Embezzling from Firm

Nathan Hardwick denies allegations of embezzlement from his real estate law firm

Meredith Hobbs, Daily Report

Nathan Hardwick IV is accused of spending the money on casino expenses and a luxury condo.
Nathan Hardwick IV is accused of spending the money on casino expenses and a luxury condo.

Related Article: Morris Hardwick Schneider Accuses Founder of Embezzling $30 Million


Nathan Hardwick IV denied Wednesday that he embezzled $30 million from his residential real estate law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider, and its affiliated title company, Landcastle Title.

In a suit filed Monday in Fulton County Superior Court, MHS and Landcastle Title claim Hardwick used the money to pay for casino expenses, private jet rides, a luxury Buckhead condo and failed real estate investments.

The firms allege in the complaint that Hardwick raided the trust and escrow accounts that they maintain for residential mortgage closings and then created false bank statements and altered accounting records to hide the deficits.

Hardwick was MHS’s managing partner and the board chairman and CEO for Landcastle Title, according to a biography that has been deleted from MHS’s website.

Hardwick denied the fraud allegations in a statement supplied by his lawyer, Ed Garland.

“Nat is not guilty of any improper, illegal or unethical conduct,” the statement said. “Nat became aware of a problem with the accounting earlier this summer and immediately alerted his partners and initiated a review by outside auditors.”

“The law firm was profitable and Nat believed that all of the money he received was properly distributed to him as his share of the profits of the firm,” the statement said.

Hardwick has resigned from the firm, according to a letter from Fidelity National Title Group that was posted Monday to MHS and Landcastle’s joint website.

Fidelity National Title Group bought a 70 percent interest in Landcastle Title, one of its agents, after the escrow account losses were discovered, the letter said. A “significant shortage” in the accounts of MHS and Landcastle prompted the acquisition and Fidelity National is funding the shortages in return for the ownership interest in Landcastle, it said. Fidelity National Title Group is owned by Fidelity National Financial.

Mark Wittstadt is now MHS’s managing partner, according to the letter, which was signed by Wittstadt and David Baum, the Southeast regional manager for Fidelity National Title Group, who is now the president of Landcastle Title.

“To allow Landcastle to fail would have been a calamity for the company’s employees, consumers, and the real estate industry, as a whole. We are grateful that FNTG made the decision to put the financial resources of the company behind Landcastle Title. Together, we are working to restore confidence in our industry,” said Wittstadt in a statement.

According to the suit, Hardwick spent $4 million from MHS’s trust accounts in wire transfers to casinos, $1 million to pay private jet companies and $645,000 to cover losses from failed property investments.

He diverted $6.3 million from MHS’s trust accounts to a personal holding company called Divot, according to the suit, which names Divot as a codefendant. According to Hardwick’s firm bio, he is an “avid golfer.”

Hardwick partially financed the February 2013 purchase of a $3 million condo at the St. Regis Residences in Buckhead with funds from MHS and Landcastle, according to the suit, and siphoned off another $390,000 in regular payments to himself from MHS’s trust accounts, after draining the operating accounts.

Landcastle’s lawyer is W. Reese Willis III of Fidelity National Law Group. MHS’s lawyer is Jeffrey Schneider of Weissman, Nowack, Curry & Wilco.

The suit alleges that Hardwick has been embezzling money for at least 18 months, saying the $390,000 in personal payouts from the MHS trust accounts occurred between January 2012 and July 2014.

“The far-reaching impact on lenders, realtors, law firms and consumers would have been a catastrophe had our parent company, Fidelity National Financial Inc. not stepped in with the capital and resources available to us and a plan to allow them to move forward,” said Jim Petropoulos, Fidelity National Title’s state manager, in an email to members of the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia.

MHS and Landcastle Title are headquartered in Atlanta. In Georgia, 57 lawyers work for MHS, according to the State Bar of Georgia’s directory.

It has 52 offices in 13 states, including Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Ohio.

Hardwick, 48, started his own real estate closing firm, Jackson & Hardwick, in 1994. With visions of expanding into a regional or even national firm, he merged his firm in 2005 with the older and more established Atlanta closing firm Morris & Schneider.

Hardwick told the Daily Report at the time that he wanted MHS to be the nation’s biggest real estate firm within a decade. As comanaging partner with Randolph Schneider, he was responsible for marketing and business development.

MHS added foreclosure services in 2008 through a merger with Baltimore-based Wittstadt & Wittstadt. That firm was founded by Mark Wittstadt, now MHS’s managing partner, and his father, Gerard Wittstadt Sr.

Hardwick told the Daily Report in 2008 that MHS’s goal was to become a national one-stop shop for residential real estate. “We can take [property] from closing to refinancing to foreclosure to REO and back to retail again,” he said.

Mary Anne Walser, a real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty, expressed shock at the fraud allegations against Hardwick. “It’s the talk of every real estate and mortgage office in town,” Walser said. “No one had any inkling that there would ever be a problem.”

She said MHS is one of the major closing firms in the city, with a reputation as a “competent firm that does a good job.”

“All of us had at least one if not multiple closings there,” she said.

Walser spoke highly of Hardwick. “He is a smart guy and he built a great, wonderful firm. I hope there is some other side to the story,” she said.

Even though Fidelity National Title stepped in and covered the shortfall to the escrow accounts, real estate agents and mortgage lenders don’t know whether it is safe to use the firm, Walser said, adding that some mortgage companies have announced they’ve stopped using MHS for closings.

One mortgage lender, Ari Berman, said his company, Silverton Mortgage Specialists, has pulled all its real estate closings from MHS.

“The last thing we want to do is get involved in any kind of fraud or anything that smacks of fraud,” said Berman, who manages Silverton’s Dunwoody office. Silverton has nine Georgia offices and one in South Carolina.

Silverton can’t take the risk of entrusting mortgage money to MHS to hold in escrow during a real estate closing for fear that it could disappear, Berman said. “What if we end up losing those funds?”

“Even though it’s just an allegation, we can’t be associated with it,” he said. “That is a sacrosanct account. It’s other people’s money.”

Even though Hardwick has resigned from MHS and Fidelity National Title has covered the escrow shortfalls, Berman said there is no guarantee that he was the sole actor. “There is too much that is unknown. I’m not willing to take that risk,” he said.

“Fraud is a real hot-button issue in this industry. People lose their life savings because of it,” he said.

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

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