Josh McLaurin, Yale Law student
Josh McLaurin, Yale Law student ()

As a Yale Law School student on summer break, Joshua McLaurin spent part of last year videorecording criminal court proceedings to document the experience of indigent defendants in Georgia.

He wasn’t working for any news organization. Rather, he saw the project as an alternative to a typical legal internship. He consulted with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which has sued over the quality of indigent defense in some parts of Georgia, and produced a video that he placed on You­Tube.

McLaurin said several courts allowed him to videotape proceedings, but he encountered resistance elsewhere. Ultimately, he appealed one of the denials. And on June 9, a Georgial Court of Appeals panel ruled that a trial judge in Walton County, near Atlanta, erred in denying McLaurin’s request to video­record proceedings. The ruling says Alcovy Judicial Circuit Chief Judge John Ott must reconsider his denial of McLaurin’s request because Ott didn’t apply the relevant legal factors correctly.

“We sympathize with the trial court’s stated concern that McLaurin might ultimately produce a report or video that is disrespectful or misleading,” Judge Christopher McFadden wrote in his opinion for a three-judge panel. “Such things have been known to occur. And members of the Supreme Court of the United States have expressed similar concerns in defending that court’s continuing policy excluding cameras.

“But,” continued McFadden, quoting a 1982 Georgia Supreme Court decision, “‘Georgia law, as we perceive it, regarding the public aspect of hearings in criminal cases is more protective of the concept of open courtrooms than federal law.’”

The appeals court ruling sends the case back to Ott for further proceedings. But the matter may not come before Ott again, because McLaurin, who graduated from Yale Law School in May, has moved on to other things, including studying for the Georgia bar examination.

McLaurin acknowledges his video request was somewhat unorthodox because he was neither a party to the cases he wanted to view nor a member of the mainstream media with a lawyer to back him up.

“I think the one common thread that ran through the other denials was trial courts have discretion,” said McLaurin. To the extent judges besides Ott were skeptical of his project, said McLaurin, they were not as open in expressing that opinion. But McLaurin also said Ott took his request particularly seriously and denied the request in a way so that McLaurin could appeal.

For-Profit Venuture?

In the Alcovy Circuit, McLaurin filed a petition and brief requesting permission to make video recordings of the criminal calendar proceedings in Walton County on July 15, 2013, and in Newton County on July 18. Using a court form, McLaurin identified himself as a student from Yale Law School.

At a hearing prior to the start of the July 15 criminal calendar, Ott heard from the circuit district attorney and public defender and McLaurin, who said he was working on a project on Georgia’s criminal justice system. Expressing his concerns about McLaurin’s petition both in court and in a subsequent written order, Ott denied McLaurin’s request.

According to the appellate ruling, Ott questioned whether McLaurin was actually engaged in a for-profit venture, rather than an academic project, and whether the finished project might be edited so as to create a false impression. He said the videotaping would not promote public access because anyone willing to travel to Walton County can view the proceedings, which “are open a hundred percent now.”

Noting there were 30 cases on the calendar, Ott also expressed concerns about the administrative burden of notifying the parties and any witnesses of their right to object. He said he could not simply notify all of the participants of the taping in a single announcement.

“I find it does have a tremendous impact upon the administration of the court,” Ott was quoted as saying in the appellate opinion, “because it doubles the court time and slows down the court time, and as the district attorney has indicated, and the public defender would probably agree, they can’t work on other things while they are in the court, and we have just a caseload that everybody needs to be continuing working on.”

McLaurin appealed to the Supreme Court, which transferred the matter to the Court of Appeals. McLaurin filed his brief pro se; no one filed a brief in opposition.

Writing an opinion joined by judges Gary Andrews and William Ray II, McFadden said that although Ott’s analysis of the matter was “thoughtful,” it overlooked the state Supreme Court’s direction to consider the state’s policy favoring open judicial proceedings when ruling on requests to film a judicial proceeding.

McFadden took issue with several of Ott’s findings, including that McLaurin’s request created an excessive administrative burden. McFadden said the panel deferred to Ott’s finding that he could not notify all of the court participants of the videotaping in a single announcement. But, wrote McFadden: “a petitioner is entitled to consume a reasonable amount of judicial resources in adjudicating the petition and the merits of any objections.”

McLaurin said he didn’t expect to appear before Ott again soon. “Because the summer project has come and gone, I don’t see myself as making a targeted attempt to go back to his court in the near future,” said McLaurin, who is looking for a permanent job.