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Public Has Right to Georgia Court Proceedings But Must Use Proper Legal Requests

A law firm recently attempted to obtain court audio tapes. After the firm requested the audio recordings, the Court told the requesting attorney and her law partner husband, that they could come to court and listen to them, but they could not record them. This prompted the firm to file a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court demanding that the Court turn over copies of the audio tapes. But a judge dismissed the case, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

On Tuesday, Justice Nels Peterson, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, said the firm should have used a court procedure known as Rule 21, which grants the public access to court records in criminal and civil cases. The firm also could have appealed Emerson’s order; it should not have filed suit, Justice Peterson wrote.

The Supreme Court did not squarely answer the most pressing issue in the case: whether the public has a right to inspect and copy a stenographer’s audio recording. As to that issue, Peterson gave somewhat mixed signals.

On the one hand, Peterson wrote, the Court’s initial offer to the the requesting attorney firm was insufficient. “We agree that merely listening to the tapes is not an adequate legal remedy when the firm has requested copies,” Justice Peterson wrote. As for obtaining copies of court audio recordings, that right, “if it exists,” may be vindicated by requesting the court recordings under Rule 21[.]”

According to the AJC article, the requesting attorney, lawyer Ashleigh Merchant said she disagreed with the Court’s finding that the law firm pursued the wrong legal procedure to obtain the tapes. But she said she was “happy that the court agreed with us that Judge Emerson and the trial court were wrong in attempting to limit the public’s access to court records to simple listening of the recordings.” Merchant also said she was pleased that the court clarified that members of the public have a right to obtain court records in a criminal case and the right to appeal a judge’s decision denying the public’s request for court records.

Whether the procedure is proper or not certainly made a difference in the Supreme Court’s analysis of this situation. However, it seems that the bigger and more important issue is: public access to public information. I cannot understand why the audio tapes would be withheld by the Court of the court reporter, but I do think they should be made readily available to anyone who asks for them. Why? Because court proceedings are public and the more public the proceedings are, the more transparency to the public the court proceedings will have. And this will engender more faith in the legal process.

Robert J. Fleming has been handling wrongful death cases, dental malpractice, bus accidents, car accident cases and premises injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 20 years. He practices in and around the Atlanta, Georgia area including handling lawsuits in Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Gwinnett, Cobb and other counties and nearby cities including Alpharetta, Austell, Avondale Estates, Chamblee, College Park, Conyers, Duluth, Decatur, Doraville, Hapeville, Johns Creek, Jonesboro, Lawrenceville, Norcross, Peachtree City, Riverdale, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Stone Mountain, and Smyrna. If you have been seriously injured and would like discuss your case in complete confidence, contact Robert J. Fleming directly on (404) 525-5150 or contact us online.