Damning Claim Against Georgia Courts May Stick

     (CN) – A Georgia judge, bailiffs and two county sheriffs must face claims that they bar the families of criminal defendants from court unless their loved ones plead guilty, a federal judge ruled.
     In June 2012, Beverly Fuqua led three named individuals in a lawsuit that claimed they had been unlawfully denied access to Ben Hill and Crisp County Superior Courts. The federal complaint named as defendants Cordele Judicial Circuit’s Chief Superior Court Judge John Pridgen; two other judges in the circuit; Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore; and Crisp County Sheriff Donnie Haralson.
     “Crisp County deputy told one family member she could not watch arraignments unless her loved one entered a guilty plea; if he pleaded not guilty, she would not be able to enter,” the complaint stated. “The general public – citizens with no relative involved in court proceedings such as Reverend Davis who seeks to minister and comfort members of his congregation – are generally completely barred from attending and observing the proceedings.”
     The complaint accused the court officers and sheriffs of violating the constitutional rights of “plaintiffs and other similarly situated individuals who attempt to watch Superior Court guilty plea proceedings, sentencings, arraignments, calendar calls, bond hearings, and other criminal proceedings in the Ben Hill and Crisp County jail courtrooms are routinely met by sheriff’s deputies who close public hearings for a host of reasons – none of which are legally sufficient.”
     Since the lawsuit was filed, a total of 18 individuals have submitted affidavits, complaining of the same treatment.
     They seek declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent future courtroom closures, nominal damages and payment of their litigation expenses.
     In February 2013, U.S. District Judge Louis Sands rejected the defendant judges’ motion to dismiss the case on the grounds the plaintiffs failed to adequately state a First Amendment case and were therefore not entitled to declaratory relief.
     Shortly afterward, the judges issued a standing order that bailiffs and sheriffs’ deputies allow access to the courts “to the extent possible to remain in compliance with occupancy and safety requirements.” The judges then moved to dismiss for mootness, arguing that because the issued the standing order a “live controversy” no longer existed.
     During the same February 2013 hearing in Albany, Ga., Judge Sands also rejected defendant Haralson’s motion to dismiss for qualified and sovereign immunity. Haralson then went back to the court with a second motion for dismissal, arguing the plaintiffs lack standing because only judges can decided where and how criminal proceedings are conducted, and he has no power to provide the relief requested.
     Six Ben Hill County bailiffs were later added to the action and moved to dismiss the claims for lack of standing and absolute quasi-judicial immunity. Like Haralson, they argued they cannot provide the requested relief. In addition, they said they merely serve as conduits for a valid judicial order.
     The bailiffs also moved to dismiss any existing Sixth or 14th Amendment claims.
     Judge Sands dismissed most of the motions Tuesday, granting dismissal only of the Sixth and 14th Amendments claims against the defendants.
     “Defendant Bailiffs and defendant Haralson claim plaintiffs lack standing to pursue injunctive or declaratory relief because these defendants allegedly have no control over the courtroom proceedings,” Sands wrote. “Defendant Judges and Defendant Haralson argue this case is moot because they have ceased the challenged practice. After a consideration of both arguments, the court concludes that this case is justiciable as to all parties and claims.”
     While an “act may be unconstitutional in the abstract” … “it does not generally cause injury until there is a possibility of enforcement,” the judge added. “Enjoining an executive officer from carrying out an unconstitutional command prevents that command from causing injury.”
     Noting the defendants offered no legal basis supporting their argument, Sands cited a more practical problem: “The record does not support their role as passive enforcers.”
     “Defendants point to the judges’ affidavits and standing order to establish they obediently minister the judges’ instructions,” Sands wrote. “This is odd, because, in those very documents, defendant judges imply, perhaps accidentally or unintentionally, that any violation is on the part of the bailiffs and deputy sheriffs. Further, the judges claim they have always directed the bailiffs and deputy sheriffs to allow the public in the proceedings as space permits. … But someone, according to the allegations of about a dozen affiants, has denied the public full access to the proceedings at the LECs despite abundant seating. In every case, the person in the first instance to deny entry is a bailiff or deputy sheriff.
     “In summary, the record and law amply support the court’s finding that plaintiffs have standing to seek an injunction against the bailiffs and sheriff,” he said.
     Sands rejected the argument for mootness based on the issuance of the standing order, saying that courts typically dismiss such motions. “Otherwise, a defendant could engage in unlawful conduct, stop when sued to have the case declared moot, then pick up where he left off, repeating this cycle until he achieves all his unlawful ends,” he wrote.
     The defendants also “offered no explanation as to why “the standing order arrived just before a hearing on a motion for preliminary injunction,” according to the ruling. Sands said this “suggests defendants have not unambiguously terminated the challenged practice.”
     He also flatly rejected the bailiffs’ claim they are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity for executing a judge’s facially valid order.
     They are not entitled to such a finding “at this immature stage of litigation,” according to the ruling.
     Citing the grounds he gave in February, Sands also denied a renewed bid by Haralson for qualified immunity and sovereign immunity to preserve those issues for appeal.

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