The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday strengthened the right to public criminal trials, ruling in a Georgia case that jury voir dire proceedings should be open to defendants and to the public.
In an unsigned 7-2 ruling in Presley v. Georgia (pdf), the high court also said that a trial judge has a duty to seek alternatives that will preserve openness even when, for example, it appears that there are so many prospective jurors in the courtroom that there are not enough seats for the public.
"Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials," the Court majority stated. "The public has the right to be present whether or not any party has asserted the right."
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented, asserting that the case should have been decided only after full briefing and oral argument. Thomas also wrote that the ruling "belittles the efforts of our judicial colleagues" who have to interpret conflicting precedents on the issue. Per curiam decisions like the one in Presley usually occur without any oral argument or briefing beyond the initial petition and response, and deal with relatively uncontroversial issues.
The issue decided Tuesday arose in another recent high-profile trial. The Kansas judge presiding over the trial of Scott Roeder, accused of murdering a Kansas doctor who performed abortions, at first closed jury selection proceedings from the public, reopening them after the Kansas Supreme Court told the judge to reconsider.
In ruling on the openness of voir dire proceedings, the Court was returning to its classic decisions based on both the Sixth and First amendments that have declared open courts, based on long tradition as well as the Constitution. The Court ruled in 1984 that the press and public have a First Amendment right of access to jury selection proceedings, but Tuesday's decision says the right to public jury selection also belongs to the defendant under the Sixth Amendment.
"The Supreme Court quickly and emphatically reiterated its long-standing precedent, and made clear you don't get to throw the public out of a criminal trial just because your courtroom is too small or because it's convenient," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "I can't imagine a more emphatic message coming out of the Court." Dalglish filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to take up the case.
Defendant Eric Presley was convicted by a Georgia jury on cocaine trafficking charges, but he challenged the trial judge's exclusion of the public -- Presley's uncle, specifically -- during voir dire of prospective jurors.
The judge, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Linda Hunter, justified the exclusion by telling the man, who was the only person in the audience, that prospective jurors would be filling the seats, and "you can't sit on the same row with the jurors." Presley's lawyer objected, but the judge still excluded the man, stating, "We have very small courtrooms and the witnesses and relatives cannot sit in the audience beside the potential jurors. That will be grounds for a mistrial."
A divided Georgia Supreme Court in March 2009 upheld the conviction, ruling that the judge had "an overriding interest" in protecting potential jurors from taint. It also ruled that the judge was not obliged to consider alternatives when none of the parties offered any.
Leah Ward Sears, then chief justice of Georgia, dissented, stating, "A room that is so small that it cannot accommodate the public is a room that is too small to accommodate a constitutional criminal trial." Carol Hunstein, the current chief justice, joined her dissent.
(Note: Tony Mauro is on the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)