Do We Jail Journalists In Georgia?

Mark ThomasonApparently, if you’re investigating the misconduct of court officers, you need their permission.

At least, that’s the rationale behind the jailing of Mark Thomason and Russell Stookey a week ago. The two were booked for making a false statement in an open-records request — something I didn’t even realize could be a crime — along with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud.

Thomason publishes Fannin Focus in the Blue Ridge mountains. It’s not online. It’s a weekly paper with a circulation of about 6,000, the sort of bread-and-butter community publication that manages to survive in the Internet era because it focuses relentlessly on local events and issues that would otherwise go unaired. These tiny papers remain indispensable to democracy. Stookey is his lawyer.

In January, Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit resigned while being investigated for the use of a racial slur in court. The rest of Georgia’s legal media moved on from the case at that point, but Thomason kept pulling at threads. During the initial reporting of the story, Thomason had asked for transcripts, and found that the stenographer may have left the slur off the record. He petitioned for the hearing recording.

The stenographer, Rhonda Stubblefield, sued him for defamation in response to his reporting. In a just world, a suit like that would have been destroyed on first contact with Georgia’s robust anti-SLAPP law. She later withdrew the suit … but was compensated for her legal fees out of Judge Bradley’s court account, just before he resigned. Then, she petitioned Thomason for attorney’s fees, to cover the money from Bradley’s account.

Because, somehow, Thomason owes the government $16,000 for being sued for doing his job as a journalist, even without a legal judgment against him. Right.

So, his lawyer filed a subpoena for the checks Stubblefield cashed, to show she was compensated. And he filed a Georgia Open Records Act request for any checks “cashed illegally.” I’d call his Open Records Act request a little cheeky … and hilarious.

Judge Brenda Weaver had him thrown in jail for it.  

Rather than file a motion to quash the subpoena like normal, non-judge people would do when seeing a subpoena they don’t want answered, Weaver suggested to the district attorney that Thomason and Stookey could have been trying to steal banking information on the checks, and should have asked permission from the court first. Thomason and Stookey are out on bond.

One might consider referring this conduct to Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission for review. I note in passing that Weaver also happens to chair Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. She just took over after Lester Tate quit a few months ago in protest of the politicization of the group responsible for removing bad judges from office. The legislature set a referendum for November to replace the Judicial Qualifications Commission with legislative appointees. Would that be better than this? Heaven help us, she may have actually given people a reason to vote yes.

I expect a judge worthy of the title to make this go away. Which is to say, I’m hoping that a judge who is supervised in his or her professional conduct by a party in the case will make this go away. It’s a multilayered outrage, of course. It’s a threat to the practice of watchdog journalism in a state in desperate need of watchdogs. It’s a threat to local journalism in a day when journalism of all kinds is under attack. And it’s an act of judicial tyranny — a cliché I would normally avoid that fits well here — that calls the quality of justice into question in a place already facing abundant questions.


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