A bill prefiled in the Georgia Senate would expand public access to records and recordings of judicial proceedings, including court reporters’ recordings that the Georgia Supreme Court recently declared off-limits unless they had been entered into the court record.
Sen. Josh MccKoon, R-Columbus, who filed the bill Dec. 19, said it is in direct response to that ruling.
The opinion ”is a great concern for me from a transparency point of view,” he said. “I think it’s important that the public have access to these documents and records.”
The legislation—Senate Bill 311—would apply to the proceedings of any “tribunal in the state that is vested with powers of a judicial nature” and mandates that access to the records “shall not be exempted by order of a court of this state or by law” unless specifically exempted by the new law.
In addition to expanding the current definition of “public record” to include records and recordings, the bill would apply to the records of any judicial body “whether created by the Constitution of this state or by law, including but not limited to those not filed with an agency.”
In October, the Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously upheld a Floyd County judge’s ruling that a court reporter’s recordings from an old murder trial the producers of a podcast wanted to copy did not have to be provided.
The producers of the “Undisclosed” podcast had sought recordings from the 2001 murder trial of Joseph Watkins, but Floyd County Superior Court Judge William Sparks ruled that they could only listen to the tapes and not record them.
The opinion by Justice Nels Peterson said “a court reporter’s recordings not filed with the court are not court records,” adding that other courts have tended to agree, unless there is some reason to doubt a transcript’s accuracy.
Asked about the sections of his bill limiting the ability of a judge to seal records or otherwise bar access, McKoon agreed that the bill as drafted may be too broad for his fellow lawmakers and portions of the legal community.
“I’ve learned in the General Assembly that the best place to start is where you think the ideal policy will be,” he said. “I certainly expect we may see the focus narrow somewhat as it goes through the committee process.”
“My intention, once we come into session, is to reach out to the Judicial Council, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, the court reporters and other relevant stakeholders for their input,” McKoon said.
In any case, “I think it should be the rule rather than the exception that these documents are open to the public,” he said.
The lawyers for “Undecided,” Caplan Cobb partners Michael Caplan and James Cobb, said they had not seen the bill until the Daily Report provided a copy and would need time to study it before offering any comment.