Right of Access to Criminal Trials

2012-08-27 20:07:10

A public right of access to criminal trials is rooted in history, in the Sixth Amendment right to a ‘‘public trial,’’ and, since the Supreme Court’s 1980 ruling in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, in the First Amendment. Without the freedom to attend criminal trials, the Court said, ‘‘important aspects of freedom of speech and of the press could be eviscerated.’’ The Court’s plurality opinion based the right on the long tradition of open trials and on the important functional role public access plays in the judicial process.

The right is not absolute and may be outweighed by countervailing interests such as national security, privacy concerns, or a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. The Court ruled in 1982 in Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court that trial closure must be decided on a case-by-case basis and must be based on a finding that a compelling governmental interest requires closure, alternatives to closure fail to adequately protect the interest, and the scope of closure is no broader than necessary.

The Richmond Newspapers ruling applied only to criminal trials, although the Court later extended the access right to pretrial proceedings (preliminary hearings and jury selection) associated with criminal trials. Some lower courts have since extended the Court’s reasoning to other types of judicial proceedings, and in 1999, the California Supreme Court used Richmond Newspapers to find a general First Amendment right of access to civil proceedings, based on a history of openness and the functional role access can play.


References and Further Reading

  • Bunker, Matthew D. Justice and the Media: Reconciling Fair Trials and a Free Press. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
  • Cerruti, Eugene, ‘‘Dancing in the Courthouse’’: The First Amendment Right of Access Opens a New Round, University of Richmond Law Review 29 (1995): 237– 325.
  • Liotti, Thomas F., The Second Circuit Review: 1996–97 Term: First and Sixth Amendments: Closing the Courtroom to the Public: Whose Rights Are Violated? Brooklyn Law Review 63 (1997): 501–50.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596 (1982)
  • Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980)

See also Media Access to Judicial Proceedings; Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980)