The Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists today is grateful that a judge has finally signed an order to drop charges against a newspaper publisher who was jailed for filing an open records request.
Senior Judge Richard Winegarden on July 18 agreed to sign the order dismissing charges against Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason after a two-hour hearing.
Thomason, publisher of the Blue Ridge, Ga.-based Fannin Focus, and his attorney were both arrested in June after filing the records request. The request was for checks cashed by a government agency and involved Chief Superior Court Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Brenda Weaver. The judge, who by her own admission did not “react well” to criticism from the press, had the District Attorney charge Thomason with three felonies – Identity fraud, attempted identity fraud and making a false statement over his request.
Due to the bond restrictions, Thomason has had to submit to random drug tests and could not visit the county courthouse, which severely hampers his ability to do his job. The case drew significant media outrage in Georgia and nationally. After being hounded by the media for a week, Weaver asked the District Attorney to drop the charges. The DA issued the order and it was delivered to Winegarden after other judges in the jurisdiction recused themselves.
Rather than sign the order immediately, Winegarden waited more than a week before scheduling a hearing about the order, a highly-unusual move, legal experts say. During his July 18 hearing, Winegarden complained about being contacted by media organizations asking him to do his job. An SPJ representative who attended the hearing said it appeared that Winegarden held the hearing for the sole purpose of chastising people who urged him to sign the order.
Nevertheless, we are glad that Judge Winegarden ultimately did the right thing. We certainly hope this is the last time Thomason will have to appear before a judge because he dared to exercise his rights under the Open Records Act and First Amendment.
In the meantime, we will continue to pursue our Judicial Qualifications Commission complaint against Judge Weaver, who also chairs the JQC. While we would like to see Weaver held accountable for her actions, we also hope we are sending a strong message to other judges tempted to use their power to harass journalists who annoy them. The journalists are watching, and SPJ Georgia will always have their backs.