Case Summary and Outcome
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the New York Court of Appeal’s ruling that the public has no Sixth or Fourteenth Amendment right to attend criminal trials and, in this case, the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the press were not violated by the trial court’s exclusion of the press from the proceedings to ensure the defendant received a fair trial.
The Petitioner newspaper challenged a decision of the Respondent trial judge excluding one of its reporters from a pretrial hearing to suppress evidence on a motion brought by defendants in a state prosecution for second-degree murder on grounds that the unabated buildup of adverse publicity had jeopardized their ability to receive a fair trial.
The Court reasoned that although there is an independent public interest in the enforcement of a Sixth Amendment right, there is no separate constitutional right on the part of the public to a public trial. It said that the Sixth Amendment contains protections solely for the benefit of a criminal defendant and that the requirement of a public trial was to guarantee that the accused would be fairly dealt with.
The Court declined to consider whether the public had a right of access to pretrial hearings under the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the trial judge had made his decision based on the competing societal interests involved, namely the constitutional rights of the press and the rights of the defendants to a fair trial, rather than on the basis that First Amendment freedoms were not implicated. Further, the Court noted that it was a temporary denial of access only and once the danger of prejudice had dissipated, a transcript of the suppression hearing was made available so that the press and the public then had a full opportunity to scrutinize the suppression hearing. Under these circumstances, any First and Fourteenth Amendment right of the petitioner to attend a criminal trial was not violated.
This case involved a prosecution for the homicide of Wayne Clapp, who disappeared in July of 1976 in Seneca Lake. Three suspects; Greathouse, his wife, and Jones, were arrested by the police because Greathouse and Jones were the last people seen with Clapp. The suspects were indicted by a Grand Jury in August. The Petitioner Gannett Co., Inc, which publishes two regional newspapers, had covered the case in several detailed stories as the investigation and legal process progressed reporting on the backgrounds of the accused and Clapp, the finding of a gun which, according to the report Greathouse had led the Michigan police to, the subsequent arraignment and indictment of the accused and including information allegedly from witness depositions.
During an allotted 90-day period defense attorneys filed a pretrial motion to suppress statements made to the police on the basis that they had been given given involuntarily. They also moved to suppress physical evidence seized as a result of the involuntary confessions, namely the gun reportedly found by the police on Greathouse’s information.
At the suppression hearing, the defense argued that the public and press should be excluded from the hearing because the unabated buildup of adverse publicity had jeopardized the defendants’ ability to receive a fair trial. The District Attorney did not object and the trial judge granted the request and no objection was made by the Petitioner’s reporter who was in court at the time.
Subsequently the Petitoner challenged this ruling arguing that it had a constitutional right to attend the hearing. The trial judge denied the request finding that the “interest of the press and the public was outweighed in this case by the defendants’ right to a fair trial.” para. 376. This Petitioner appealed to the Supreme Court of New York challenging the trial court’s orders on First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York vacated the trial judge’s orders, holding that they transgressed the public’s vital interest in open judicial proceedings and further constituted an unlawful prior restraint in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
On appeal, New York Court of Appeals held that even though criminal trials are generally open to the public, in this case closure was appropriate because of the risk posed to the rights of the defendants. The U.S. Supreme Court granted review because of the “significant constitutional questions involved.”
Justice Stewart delivered the opinion of the Court.
First, the Court considered the issue of mootness finding that the underlying dispute was not moot because it met the applicable standard of being capable of repetition yet evading review. In this case, although the order closing the pretrial hearing had expired because the defendants had pleaded guilty to lesser offenses and a transcript of the suppression hearing had been made available to the Petitioner, it was reasonable to expect that the Petitioner, as a publisher of two New York papers, could be subjected to similar closure orders entered by the New York courts in compliance with the judgment of that State’s Court of Appeals.
The Court then turned to the merits of the case. First, it discussed whether the public had a Sixth Amendment right to access of a criminal trial. It stated that the Sixth Amendment contains protections solely for the benefit of a criminal defendant and the requirement of a public trial was to guarantee that the accused would be fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned. The Court said that while there is clearly an independent public interest in the enforcement of a Sixth Amendment right, there is no separate constitutional right on the part of the public to a public trial. For example, if a defendant waived his right to a jury trial, the public could not then request one on his behalf. Similarly, the Court found no support for the right of access in the Fourteenth Amendment or through the common law and noted the English common law’s historical denial of public access to pretrial hearings.
The Court declined to consider whether the public had a right of access to pretrial hearings under the First and Fourteenth Amendments because, in this case, the trial judge had determined that there was a “reasonable probability of prejudice to the defendants” having employed a balancing test between the constitutional rights of the press and the rights of the defendants to a fair trial. In other words he had made his decision based on the competing societal interests involved rather than on the basis that First Amendment freedoms were not implicated. Further, it was a temporary denial of access only and once the danger of prejudice had dissipated, a transcript of the suppression hearing was made available. The press and the public then had a full opportunity to scrutinize the suppression hearing. Unlike the case of an absolute ban on access, therefore, the press here had the opportunity to inform the public of the details of the pretrial hearing accurately and completely. Under these circumstances, any First and Fourteenth Amendment right of the petitioner to attend a criminal trial was not violated. This holding was expanded in a subsequent case.
Justice Burger wrote separately to concur, agreeing with the opinion of the Court but wanting to clarify that a hearing on a motion to suppress evidence before trial is merely a pretrial hearing and not a trial.
Justice Powell wrote separately to concur, joining the opinion of the Court but adding that he would have found a right of the press to access trials under the First and Fourteenth Amendments as the majority declined to decide.
Justice Rehnquist wrote separately to concur, also wanting the court to make a decision on the First and Fourteenth Amendment right to access, as this question is now open for interpretation among the individual states.
Justice Blackman (joined by Justice Brennan, White, and Marshall) wrote separately to concur in part and dissent in part. Blackman would have found that the Sixth Amendment allows for the right of access, and would not limit the Amendment to protecting only the rights of the accused, specifically referring back to Singer v. United States, where the Court found “although a defendant can, under some circumstances, waive his constitutional right to a public trial, he has no absolute right to compel a private trial.” *417 The dissent would find, rather, a lack of rights for the criminal defendant in requesting a closed trial. Further, the Dissent argued that only in rare circumstances should closure be allowed and they did not find that this case met this rare occurrence standard.