In a 7-2 decision handed down on Jan. 19, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the jury selection process in most criminal cases must be open to the public under the defendant's Sixth Amendment guarantee of a public trial.
"Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials," the majority wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion in Presley v. Georgia, 130 S. Ct. 721 (2010). The decision was a summary disposition, meaning the case was decided without any oral argument or briefing beyond the initial petition and response.
The appellant in the case, Eric Presley, was convicted of a cocaine trafficking offense in a Georgia state court in 2007. According to the Supreme Court's opinion, a trial court judge noticed a single observer, Presley's uncle, present in the courtroom as it was about to begin questioning prospective jurors for Presley's trial. The judge told the man that he was not allowed to stay in the courtroom and must leave that floor of the courthouse entirely to avoid interacting with jurors.
When Presley's attorney objected to "the exclusion of the public from the courtroom," the judge said that there "just isn't space for them to sit in the audience," and that there was "really no need for the uncle to be present during jury selection."
After Presley's conviction, he filed a motion for a new trial based on the exclusion of the public from the jury selection, and presented evidence showing that 14 prospective jurors could have fit in the jury box and the remaining 28 could have fit entirely on one side of the courtroom, leaving adequate room for members of the public on the other side.
The trial court judge denied Presley's motion, stating that "it's up to the individual judge to decide . . . what's comfortable," and that "It's totally up to my discretion whether or not I want family members in the courtroom to intermingle with the jurors and sit directly behind the jurors where they might overhear some inadvertent comment or conversation."
Presley appealed the decision, arguing that his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to a public trial were violated when the trial court judge excluded the public from the voir dire, or jury selection, portion of his trial. Presley's conviction was affirmed by the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Georgia, both of which ruled that the trial judge had made sufficient findings to close the courtroom to the public.
In reversing the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to an open trial and the First Amendment rights of members of the public and the press to access court proceedings, as established in court cases such as Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501 (1984), were generally coextensive.
"There can be little doubt that the explicit Sixth Amendment right of the accused is no less protective of a public trial than the implicit First Amendment right of the press and public," the opinion stated.
The Court again cited Press Enterprise for the principle that the right to a public trial extended to the voir dire process. "In the First Amendment context that question was answered in Press-Enterprise. The Court there held that the voir dire of prospective jurors must be open to the public under the First Amendment," the opinion stated. "[T]here is no legitimate reason, at least in the context of juror selection proceedings, to give one who asserts a First Amendment privilege greater rights to insist on public proceedings than the accused has."
Despite the court's finding that a general Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and jury selection exists, the Court held that the right was not absolute. "[T]he right to an open trial may give way in certain cases to other rights or interests, such as . . . the government's interest in inhibiting disclosure of sensitive information," the majority opinion stated, citing Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984). "Such circumstances will be rare, however, and the balance of interests must be struck with special care . . . the party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest, the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure."
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion in the case, which was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, objecting to the court's decision to issue the opinion without the customary opportunity for the parties to present oral arguments and a full briefing. The dissent did not take a position on whether the Sixth Amendment question was correctly decided.
David E. Hudson, general counsel of the Georgia Press Association, called the ruling "a ringing affirmation" of the public's right to be present for all parts of a criminal trial in a January 20 story in The Atlanta Journal-Constituiton. "There should be no doubt now in any trial court in Georgia or in other states that this important right must be protected by the presiding judge," Hudson said.
- JACOB PARSLEY
SILHA FELLOW AND BULLETIN EDITOR