The public’s right to access


The SJC's annual pro-active effort to reach the public by holding arguments at various high schools throughout Maine, which I referenced in the last entry, prompt some thoughts about recent developments in the case law on the issue of the public's right to attend judicial proceedings.  There have been two fairly recent decisions, one from the Supreme Court and one from the First Circuit, that underscore the importance of this right:  Pressley v. Georgia, 130 S.Ct. 721 (Jan. 19, 2010)[] and U.S. v. Agosto-Verga, Docket 09-1158 (1st Cir. Aug. 18, 2010) [].

Both cases involved the exclusion of family members of criminal defendants during jury selection, based on what appears to be simply a failure to give the right to access sufficient attention – the trial judges just thought they didn't have the space, and that the selection process was not of sufficient moment to require an effort to accommodate the defendant's relatives. 

The take-away points that may resonate generally from this precedent are the courts' acknowledgement that all stages of the trial are important for access purposes; that an effort has to be made to facilitate this access; and the occasions on which the public will be excluded are rare.  Note — as do these decisions — that when the defendant raises the issue, it sounds under the Sixth Amendment, but the public's right to access is also protected under the First Amendment, too.