Public Trial

The right of a criminal defendant to a public trial is found in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that ‘‘in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a public and speedy trial.’’ This right has been made applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The right to a public trial is derived from English common law, where the practice of holding open trials predated even the rights now guaranteed to criminal defendants by the Constitution.

Several purposes underlie the utility of a public trial in American society. Opening trials to the public protects the rights of the defendant, in that public scrutiny will encourage judges and prosecutors to ensure that trials are fundamentally fair. In addition, public trials reinforce the public’s faith in the fairness of the judicial system. Knowledge of the ability to attend criminal trials allows for public confidence that the judicial process deals with crime in a manner that takes into account the interests of the accused and the public. Furthermore, full knowledge of trial procedures and outcome allows the community to react to and process the resolution of criminal acts that disrupt the fabric of lawful society.

Courts have dealt with the right to a public trial in the contexts of when a defendant can request a closed trial and when the government can close a trial over the objection of the defendant. The Supreme Court has held that the right to a public trial is a personal right of the defendant that he can waive in conjunction with the prosecution and the court. Several reasons exist to encourage a criminal defendant to request a closed trial, chief among these the desire to avoid negative publicity that may affect the impartiality of the proceedings. Nevertheless, members of the press argue that the First Amendment grants a right of access to judicial proceedings. In response to these arguments, the Supreme Court has held that a defendant can request a closed trial only after specific findings of a substantial probability that the defendant’s case will be prejudiced by negative publicity and that no reasonable alternatives exist to protect his or her rights.

Conversely, criminal defendants have challenged the propriety of the government’s ability to close judicial proceedings to the public. The government’s reasons for wanting a closed trial may include the need to protect sensitive government information, the desire to protect the identity of witnesses, and the desire to protect juveniles within the justice system (especially as victims and witnesses). Because the right to a public trial is a clearly delineated constitutional right, courts have held that the government can close a trial only when a compelling government interest exists. Furthermore, the means and methods of closing the trial must be narrowly tailored to accomplish that interest. Finally, the government must consider alternative methods, short of closing a trial to the public, to achieve the compelling interest.

ANN B. CHING

References and Further Reading

  • Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368 (1979).
  • Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501 (1984) (Press Enterprise I).
  • Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1 (1986) (Press-Enterprise II).
  • Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984).

Statutes and Cases Cited

  • U.S. Constitution, Amendment VI
  • U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV

See also Balancing Approach to Free Speech; Bill of Rights: Structure; Cameras in the Courtroom; Classified Information; English Tradition of Civil Liberties; Free Press/Fair Trial; Gag Orders in Judicial Proceedings; Grand Jury; Jury Trial; Media Access to Judicial Proceedings; Right of Access to Criminal Trials

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