What conversations matter to you?
Pro Advocate Radio made its debut in January 2015 not long after a series of town hall meetings where concerned citizens, including teens, gathered to talk about the fact that we need to work to protect our freedoms. Surprise and confusion were two words heard from most who shared experiences dealing with courts and government agencies.
Many take for granted that we live in a country where our civil rights are guaranteed and do not notice that the rights of others around us are being infringed upon, and worse. Hearing the stories told by grandmothers, high school students, parents and business owners was a wake-up call for me.
We need to talk about challenges faced by our neighbors, the families we see at school and in church, our peers at work, and look for solutions that protect and guide through recovery. What better way to do that than by inviting professionals to engage in problem-solving, and by making this conversation public?
One high-profile issue in Georgia where I live is the topic of open courts or open government meetings and open records. July 3rd, Monday, is the deadline for public comments to be made to our state’s Council of Superior Court Judges. This link provides contact information for submission by fax or mail.
At a glance this issue may not seem important to you, but if you listen to some of the stories shared in 2015 on Pro Advocate Radio, including by an investigative news reporter, a guardian ad litem and lawyers, you’ll get this key message:
Our children, families, business owners, actually all of us, are safer when meetings, courts and records are open. I believe this applies to judges & other court professionals as well. It only makes sense that if you feel safe and are able to trust that you can make better decisions; and, it makes sense that there will be less risk or blowback on courts. From what I’ve witnessed, increasing transparency could actually reduce operating costs for courts.
Open court laws are on the books for good reason.
We all have expectations that are not met at times, and we often aren’t prepared to advocate for ourselves as the situation calls for. In our busy lives we don’t stop to look up laws and rules and to be informed before entering a courtroom or when going to government meetings in search of answers or support. As a result, many are caught off guard when a plea for information or protection is turned down. Frustration quickly escalates.
Frustration can turn into anger, despair and can cause some to lose motivation to do their best at home and at work. Some turn these emotions on the people they interact with in our government, including at courthouses.
This is what drives me to engage you in solutions. Our children don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with this stress, which contributes to the high drug use in our state.
Over this past year I’ve worked around Georgia documenting and filming content to share with you in future broadcasts. So much has been learned about how we can empower agencies and courts to help our citizens achieve better outcomes, meaning we can put more time, energy and financial resources into our families, businesses and into advocating for the causes we care about.
What if, simply by saving people time & energy, we increase the number of volunteers for Georgia CASA by 5% this coming year? What if we helped more people keep their homes and jobs? Could that stability translate into a 10% increase in the number of families able to foster and adopt children? Can you guess how many children that would help? What if we increased that number by 20% each year?
A great example of an improved outcome is seen in what was a heated and prolonged family conflict, one in which the judge was put in an uncomfortable position while being leaned on by an attorney who appears often in his courtroom.
Twice the Court of Appeals in Georgia reversed and remanded this court’s ruling on the case, as the trial court went against Georgia policy in favoring a grandmother over a safe, caring father as custodian of his children. When the next hearing was set, I filed a Rule 22 request to film the proceedings and the court approved my request.
Rather than resistance, what I sensed from the court and other court officials I interacted with was relief. The first part of this hearing was brief as the local attorney attempted last minute to bring in an expert, a doctor hired to cast doubt about the father’s ability to safely parent his children, without providing proper notice to the other side or allowing for discovery, so the hearing was continued. The delay provided me with more time to research and to interview professionals and others in the community familiar with the case. What I found was that the grandmother’s lawyer was doing more than just leaning on the judge to ignore the state’s policy and the facts of this case. On the flip side of that problem, I found much support for turning this case around and telling this story.
The great news for the judge?
During the second and final part to this hearing which the judge again allowed me to film and record, the family reached an agreement during lunch on the first day and the second day wasn’t needed as anticipated. Problem solved.
If you knew the history and the allegations and saw the rancor between these parties you could not have imagined they would be standing together, smiling and talking peacefully in front of the judge – as a group. Pro bono lawyers from outside the area took on this case and stood their ground to ensure the facts were clearly presented. Transparency matters.
Interestingly enough, the doctor did not return for this hearing, and it was obvious in the family’s expressions, body language and in the agreement they reached that there was no real concern over safety or how the children would be treated by their father, his family or in their home.
The court did not have to make another ruling that would have led to greater division and resentment in this family, and the parties did not have to continue arguing and defending. They were able to return to caring for the children and to get back to jobs and life.
Yes, I believe Rule 22 is an important rule to protect and to keep clear and certain in how its applied by courts. It’s important to our citizens and court officials that Rule 22 and the mandate of keeping courtrooms open are treated as intended by our leaders who passed legislation to keep government agencies and courts open to the public.
Cameras in our courtrooms, managed properly and with good intentions, make a positive difference both for the public – especially our children – and for our judges and other court officials.
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