Access to Public Information
Dotcom Trading 121 (PTY) Ltd v. King
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Closed Expands Expression
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The U.S. Supreme Court established that the right of the public and press to attend criminal trials is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. At the Defendant’s fourth trial for the murder of a hotel manager, the trial court granted his counsel’s request that it be closed to the public. Appellants Wheeler and McCarthy, reporters for Appellant Richmond Newspapers, Inc., were removed from the courtroom for trial which included the hearing of their motion to vacate the disclosure order. The Court reasoned that the First Amendment guaranteed the right of assembly in public places such as courthouses and therefore, a judge cannot decide to close a court proceeding without factual findings that override the public’s right to access.
Defendant Stevenson was charged with the murder of a hotel manager who had been stabbed to death. His conviction in state court was reversed by Virginia Supreme Court which found that evidence had been improperly admitted. Two subsequent trials resulted in mistrials. At the Defendant’s fourth trial, defense counsel requested that the trial be closed to the public. The prosecution did not object, no objections were made by the Appellants and the Court granted the request.
However, later in the day the Appellants sought to vacate the closure ruling, arguing that the court had made no evidentiary findings to support closure and therefore the closure was in error. The court denied the request, finding that having press present would be distracting to the jury. Specifically, the trial judge stated, “if I feel that the rights of the defendant are infringed in any way, [when] he makes the motion to do something and it doesn’t completely override all rights of everyone else, then I’m inclined to go along with the defendant’s motion.” The trial continued with the press and public excluded.
The Appellants moved to intervene, and then petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court for review of the closure ruling. This was denied. Appellants then sought review in the Supreme Court, which was granted on writ of certiorari.
Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court and reversed the decision of the lower court.
First, the Court held that its jurisdiction by appeal did not lie because the validity of the relevant Virginia statute was not drawn sufficiently into question by the appellants before the Virginia courts. However it treated the papers as a petition for a writ of certiorari to review the ruling.
It said that the practical termination of the trial did not make the case moot, its underlying dispute was ‘capable of repetition, yet evading review’ since review was declined by the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Court went on to examine the development of criminal trials and the jury system in the U.S. and England noting that courts have traditionally been open to ‘all who care to observe’. Specifically, it noted that the court process must ‘satisfy the appearance of justice’ if it is to work effectively. It concluded that ‘a presumption of openness inheres in the very nature of a criminal trial under this Nation’s system of justice’.
The State argued that the Constitution and Bill of Rights do not contain any explicit provisions which guarantee the public a right to access. The Court said that the First and Fourteenth Amendment expressly guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to public assembly, share a common purpose of assuring freedom of communication on matters relating to the functioning of government and were enacted against the backdrop of the long history of trials being presumptively open. Therefore ‘the First Amendment guarantees of speech and press, standing alone, prohibit government from summarily closing courtroom doors which had long been open to the public at the time the Amendment was adopted’.
Further, the Court said, the right to assembly is also relevant because a trial courtroom is a public place where the people generally — and representatives of the media — have a right to be present, and where their presence historically has been thought to enhance the integrity and quality of what takes place.
Finally, the Court said that simply because a right is not specifically set out in the Constitution does not mean that this right ceases to exist. It said that various fundamental rights, not expressly guaranteed, have been recognized as indispensable to the enjoyment of enumerated rights. Examples include the right to privacy, right to be presumed innocent, the rights to travel: they are not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution yet they are still rights U.S. citizens enjoy.
‘The right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment; without the freedom to attend such trials, which people have exercised for centuries, important aspects of freedom of speech and of the press could be eviscerated.’
Justice White wrote separately to note that this case would have been unnecessary had Gannett Co. v. DePasquale construed the Sixth Amendment to forbid excluding the public from criminal proceedings except in narrowly defined circumstances.
Justice Stevens wrote separately to emphasize that until this decision the Court had accorded virtually absolute protection to the dissemination of information or ideas, but never before had it squarely held that the acquisition of newsworthy matter is entitled to any constitutional protection whatsoever.
Justice Brennan (joined by Justice Marshall) wrote separately to note that the Constitution implicitly provides a right of public access to trials and that, without more, the trial judge and parties cannot constitutionally close a trial to the public.
Justice Stewart wrote separately to note that the right of public access to trials is not absolute and various considerations can sometimes justify limitations on the unrestricted presence of spectators in the courtroom. However, in this case the trial judge failed to recognize the right of the press and public to be present.
Justice Blackmun wrote separately noting that the right to a public trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and that the First Amendment must provide some measure of protection for public access.
Justice Rehnquist dissented finding that if the prosecution and the defense find that they have adequate reasons to close a trial to the public, this should be upheld by the Courts as there is no explicit guarantee to an open courtroom in the Constitution.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression because it establishes for the first time that the public and the press have a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the Supreme Court this decision binds all lower Courts.
The case is a landmark decision because it established that the First Amendment includes a right for the public and the press to attend criminal trials.
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