The U.S. Supreme Court is very serious about keeping courtrooms open to the public even during jury selection.
It's been two years since the Presley vs. Georgia case and the word hasn't apparently filtered down to the Ventura County Hall of Justice.
Twice, I have been told by courtroom bailiffs that I couldn't stay for jury selection because all the courtroom seats would be taken up by jury panels.
Today, was the second time it happened within the last three months.
(The judges and lawyers, not the bailiffs, should be the ones who make sure the Supreme Court ruling is followed.)
What I am surprised at is that neither defense attorneys nor defendants are aware of the high court ruling because denying the public the right to attend the jury selection process will probably get a criminal conviction tossed out.
Here is some information from an earlier column I wrote on my blog about Presley vs. Georgia.
This is what happened in Georgia in 2007: A judge threw out the uncle of a defendant during selection, saying her courtroom was too small to accommodate both potential jurors and the public.
The judge said:
" 'Well, the uncle can certainly come back in once the trial starts. There's no, really no need for the uncle to be present during jury selection... . [W]e have 42 jurors coming up. Each of those rows will be occupied by jurors. And his uncle cannot sit and intermingle with members of the jury panel. But, when the trial starts, the opening statements and other matters, he can certainly come back into the courtroom.' "
The defendant, Eric Presley who was convicted of trafficking in cocaine, appealed, citing his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
In 2010, the United States Supreme in the case of Presley vs. Georgia agreed with the defendant and overturned Presley's conviction, noting that the public trial right is founded in both the Sixth and First Amendment.
The Supreme Court said in its ruling:
"Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials. Nothing in the record shows that the trial court could not have accommodated the public at Presley's trial. Without knowing the precise circumstances, some possibilities include reserving one or more rows for the public; dividing the jury venire panel to reduce courtroom congestion; or instructing prospective jurors not to engage or interact with audience members."
To review the entire Presley vs. Georgia case courtesy of Cornell University School of Law go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/09-5270.ZPC.html
In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1980 case Richmond Newspaper vs. Virginia, the justices stated that trials must be open to public access unless there is a compelling reason in closing them, and only after a hearing concludes that no other means exist to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial.
In that court case, then Chief Justice Burger noted that "where a trial has been concealed from public view, the unexpected outcome can cause a reaction that the system at best has failed and at worst has been corrupted."
The Supreme Court found four benefits to open trials: public confidence is enhanced in the judicial system; the public serves as a watchdog against abuses; public trials promote the truth finding process and helps achieve a community catharsis following a serious crime.