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Georgia Supreme Court to hear Floyd County open records case

April 30, 2017--4:00 p.m.

Staff reports

A high-profile open records case with local ties willl be argued this week in front of the Georgia Superme Court.

The makers of a podcast series are asking the court to reverse a Floyd County judge’s ruling and allow them not only to inspect the audio recordings they requested but also to copy them.

In 2001, Joseph “Joey” Watkins was convicted in Rome of murder for his role in shooting and killing Isaac Dawkins on Jan. 11, 2000 near Georgia Highlands College. He was sentenced to life plus five years in prison and in 2003 the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld the conviction and sentence.

Season Two of “Undisclosed.” focused on the Watkins case and filed an open records request asking to copy the court’s audio recordings of two pretrial hearings and the trial itself.

Floyd County Superior Court Judge William Sparks ordered Undisclosed to file a motion requesting access to the recordings, which its lawyers did. Georgia’s Uniform Superior Court Rule 21 states that “court records are public and are to be available for public inspection.”

On Oct. 28, 2016 the judge granted Undisclosed the right to listen and inspect the tapes but denied its request to copy them.

The judge cited the Georgia Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Green v. Drinnon which stated that an “official court reporter’s tape of a judge’s remarks in open court is a court record” and that “the tape or [its transcript] must be made available for public inspection.” But the judge wrote that nothing in Green entitled Undisclosed to the court reporters’ back-up recordings.

The high court will hear arguments about whether the right to inspect includes the right to copy.

According to briefs filed by attorneys for Undisclosed, they followed the proper procedure in requesting copies of the court records. “For the last 30 years, this Court has consistently recognized a non-party’s right to file a motion pursuant to Rule 21 to obtain access to court records.".

They contend that the recordings are subject to the same robust right of access and copying that would apply to a printed court record.

The State, represented by Floyd County District Attorney Leigh Patterson, argues that by filing a Rule 21 motion in a now-closed criminal case, in which it was not a party, Undisclosed, which it calls an “entertainment company,” did not use the proper vehicle for obtaining access to the trial recordings.

The state goes on to say that "Georgia law requires public access to court records. Here, Undisclosed has been provided with access to the transcripts of the trial of this case as well as the right to listen to the court reporter tapes. Furthermore, Undisclosed is not a party to this action and has failed to advance any legal reasoning why its request to copy the tapes should be granted.”