Occasionally, I'll bump into a person in the Hall of Justice corridors, usually a college student on a school assignment, who will ask if he or she is allowed to go inside a courtroom.
Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court makes this very clear: courtrooms are open to the public and can only be closed if there is a compelling reason to do so.
Here what is what the Supreme Court has said about courtroom trials.
In 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.
Also people can attend preliminary hearings and jury selection.
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."
So put down the TV remote and go watch our judicial system. It is a tremendous learning opportunity.
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