All portions of a criminal trial must be open to the public, including selection of the jury, the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
In an unusual summary order, the high court ruled 7 to 2 in favor of a convicted cocaine trafficker who claimed that his right to a public trial was violated when a judge in Georgia barred members of the public from the courtroom during jury selection.
At the time, there was only one observer in the courtroom – defendant Eric Presley’s uncle. Mr. Presley’s lawyer objected to excluding members of the public. But the judge said there wasn’t enough room in the courtroom for the 42 prospective jurors as well as public observers.
The judge expressed concern that prospective jurors might say something that could be overheard by the public.
In answer to the lawyer’s objection, the judge said he had discretion to exclude the public from jury selection.
A state appeals court and the Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the judge.
On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court said they were wrong. The court agreed to take up the case and then decided it without requesting additional briefing and oral argument.
The unsigned eight-page opinion says that a 1984 Supreme Court opinion established a First Amendment right of the public and press to attend a trial, including jury selection. The high court also ruled in 1984 that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a public trial also extends to pretrial hearings.
What the court had never declared until Tuesday is that the Sixth Amendment – not just the First Amendment – guarantees that jury selection is part of the public portion of a trial.
“Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials,” the court declared. “Nothing in the record shows that the trial court could not have accommodated the public at Presley’s trial.”
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia filed a dissent. Writing for the two, Justice Thomas said he would not decide the issue in a summary order without the benefit of further briefing and oral argument.
“Today’s decision belittles the efforts of our judicial colleagues who have struggled with these issues,” he wrote.
The case is Presley v. Georgia.
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