Superior Court Judge William Woodrum Jr. dismissed defamation claims May 15 brought against The News by former state court public defender Reid Zeh, but he allowed the complaint against the American Civil Liberties Union to continue.
May 17, the ACLU filed a notice of appeal of that order.
In his order, Woodrum stated he granted The News’ motion to dismiss pursuit to a state law against what are called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls SLAPPs “an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses….”
The state law is under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-11.1, which reads, “The General Assembly of Georgia finds and declares that it is in the public interest to encourage participation by the citizens of Georgia in matters of public significance through the exercise of their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to petition government for redress of grievances.
“The General Assembly of Georgia further finds and declares that the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to petition government for a redress of grievances should not be chilled through abuse of the judicial process.”
The News contended in its motion to dismiss that its article merely repeated allegations made in the federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU. Reporting on lawsuits is protected under Georgia law, The News argued.
The situation that birthed this lawsuit began when lawyers from the ACLU sued Glynn County, Sheriff Neal Jump, former Chief Magistrate Judge Alex Atwood and Zeh, in March 2018, alleging the county ran “an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against people who are financially strapped.”
Since the filing of that lawsuit, Zeh left his public position — though he remains in private practice — the General Assembly passed bail reform legislation and Atwood moved on to be commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services. Atwood also, before he left, instituted an additional day of hearings for the newly arrested, which was believed to increase the likelihood someone detained on a misdemeanor charge could be released sooner rather than later.
However, in the original complaint, the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated that Zeh, as a state court public defender, had “a policy of not visiting public defense clients in the detention center, representing clients at their bail-setting hearing or requesting a preliminary hearing or bail-modification hearing on their behalf.”
A motion for leave to file an amended complaint June 26 on behalf of the plaintiffs led to an accusation by ACLU staff attorney Andrea Woods in a news release that Zeh essentially extorted the mother of someone he was appointed to defend in state court, for the amount of $2,500.
According to the motion to amend the complaint, “Zeh informed (Robert) Cox (Jr.) that he would only assist with his public defender case if paid $2,500. (Barbara) Hamilton, Cox’s mother, paid Zeh the $2,500, not realizing Zeh was already paid by Glynn County to provide public defense services to persons like her son.”
In his affidavit in the matter, Zeh said Cox, on April 1, 2015, “attempted to pled guilty to the misdemeanor, but the prosecutor announced his intention to transfer the case to superior court … because this was Mr. Cox’s sixth offense of shoplifting.”
Zeh said the misdemeanor subsequently became a felony, and he wasn’t involved in the upgrade in severity or the transfer of the case to a different court.
At that April 1 hearing, Zeh said Cox told the judge he needed to talk with his lawyer about the changes, but that he wasn’t representing Cox at that time and wasn’t approached “for representation on his misdemeanor charges.”
Afterward, Zeh said Cox came to his private office seeking representation on the felony matter, and Cox and later, his mother over the phone, agreed to the $2,500 fee for representation.
“At no point of time did Mr. Cox inquire about public defender services or indicate that he was looking for a public defender,” Zeh said.
He added that he was able to secure Cox’s release from jail after another arrest and obtained a dismissal of the felony charge. Zeh also asserted he never took money from a client he represented as a public defender.
In letters dated July 5, Zeh’s attorney, Brent Savage, wrote to The News and the ACLU and stated in part, “On the contrary, Mr. Zeh was retained by Mr. Cox and his mother to represent Mr. Cox with a felony case in the Superior Court of Glynn County. Such representation falls outside the scope of Mr. Zeh’s duties as the Glynn County State Court public defender.”
The letter to The News demanded the newspaper to issue a correction and retraction of the accusation, and a similar request was made of the ACLU regarding a blog post on its website, promising a defamation lawsuit was coming if those actions didn’t take place.
Recently, the Glynn County Board of Commissioners voted to settle the cash bail lawsuit with the plaintiffs — Margery Freida Mock and Eric Scott Ogden Jr. — and their attorneys, for a total of $62,500. The settlement has yet to become official, however.