ALBANY, Ga. (CN) - A Georgia circuit court and two county sheriffs prohibit family members of criminal defendants from entering court unless their family members plead guilty, according to a federal class action.
Four named plaintiffs sued the Cordele Judicial Circuit's Chief Superior Court Judge John Pridgen, two other judges in the circuit, and Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore and Crisp County Sheriff Donnie Haralson.
One plaintiff, the Rev. James Davis III, who counsels defendants in these courts, says he was involved in a previous lawsuit against the same courts and sheriffs, and that "he joins this lawsuit because violations continue to occur".
Lead plaintiff Beverly Fuqua and two others seek to represent the class, including the general public and family members and loved ones of criminal defendants appearing in the Ben Hill and Crisp County Superior Courts of the Cordele Judicial Circuit.
"Crisp County deputy told one family member she could not watch arraignments unless her loved one entered a guilty plea; if he pleaded not guilty, she would not be able to enter," the complaint states. "The general public - citizens with no relative involved in court proceedings such as Reverend Davis who seeks to minister and comfort members of his congregation - are generally completely barred from attending and observing the proceedings."
According to the complaint: "Plaintiff Beverly Fuqua is a resident of Fitzgerald, Georgia, located in Ben Hill County. Plaintiff Fuqua attempted to attend her son's court appearances in the Ben Hill County Law Enforcement Center courtroom on three occasions - January 23, 2012, in February 2012, and March 29, 2012. Each time, a bailiff told her she was not allowed in the courtroom and that she would have to wait outside until her son's case was called. Each time she waited at least two hours in the outside lobby, unable to watch any hearings, because her son entered a not guilty plea.
"Plaintiff Joyce Scales is a resident of Lithonia, Georgia, located in DeKalb County. On March 15, 2011, plaintiff Scales and her sister drove over two hours to see her incarcerated nephew, who suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, appear for arraignments in the Crisp County Jail courtroom. Given her nephew's mental health needs, Ms. Scales wanted to be present at his arraignment to both show support and ensure he was treated fairly. When she and her sister asked to enter the jail courtroom, however, a deputy told them they would have to wait in the lobby. According to the deputy, plaintiff Scales and her sister would not be allowed in if their nephew did not plead guilty. Over the course of two hours, Ms. Scales and her sister peeked through the courtroom door whenever it opened to get a glimpse of their nephew. After hours of waiting, a deputy told Ms. Scales that her nephew entered a not guilty plea; as a result, the deputy barred Ms. Scales and her sister from entering the courtroom."
The class claims the courts and sheriffs are violating the Constitution: "Plaintiffs and other similarly situated individuals who attempt to watch Superior Court guilty plea proceedings, sentencings, arraignments, calendar calls, bond hearings, and other criminal proceedings in the Ben Hill and Crisp County jail courtrooms are routinely met by sheriff's deputies who close public hearings for a host of reasons - none of which are legally sufficient."
The class claims the defendants slam the courtroom doors though neither the district attorneys office nor any defendants ask that the proceedings be closed, and despite a previous lawsuit from a local college on behalf of a student who was denied access to the court.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief and nominal damage for constitutional violations.
They are represented by Stephen Bright with the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Ben Hill and Crisp counties are in south central Georgia.