The Georgia First Amendment Foundation recognized a Cobb County judge Wednesday for a career keeping his courtrooms open to the public and news media, especially during high-profile trials.
Senior Judge James Bodiford received the group’s Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award, named for a state Supreme Court justice who was a fierce advocate of open government.
Bodiford served on the bench for three decades before stepping down from daily trial work in 2014. He told foundation dinner guests that he learned in a judicial training course early in his career that “you need the confidence of the public.”
“The more they know, the better they’ll feel about it,” he said.
Bodiford presided over several murder trials that received gavel-to-gavel television coverage. They included that of lawyer Fred Tokars, convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his wife; Lynn Turner, convicted of poisoning her husband with antifreeze; and Brian Nichols, convicted of the 2005 Fulton County Courthouse murders.
The First Amendment group credited Bodiford for lifting a gag order and opening proceedings against Ray Brent Marsh, the North Georgia crematory owner accused of abandoning hundreds of corpses in his care.
Bodiford told journalists at the event that some judges “are scared of you”—afraid that lawyers and parties will act differently when video cameras are on.
“That has not been my experience,” he said, noting that most judges take the same steps for which he was being honored. “We have a few judges we’re still working on.”
At the dinner, Cox Media Group announced it was donating to the foundation $80,000 in legal fees the city of Atlanta paid as part of a settlement of claims by WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration violated open records laws.
Foundation president Richard Griffiths praised Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and City Attorney Nina Hickson for the city’s new efforts to make government open, including appointing an officer to ensure the city complies with open records laws.
The Daily Report was a media sponsor of Wednesday’s event.