Monday, June 15, 2009

Open courtrooms help ensure fair trials

The following opinion piece has appeared in several Kentucky newspapers.

By Mike Farrell

The governor is on the witness list. The president of the state Senate may also be called to testify. One defendant, a former head of the state Transportation Cabinet, is accused of taking bribes while providing inside information to another defendant, a road contractor. Can anyone imagine a scenario in which the public has more interest, or more right, to know what is happening as the wheels of justice turn?

This is a public corruption case. If the defendants are guilty they have defrauded the taxpayers. The indictment alleged that the scheme between former Secretary William Nighbert and contractor Leonard Lawson resulted in Lawson winning state road contracts worth $130 million.

Despite the obvious stake the taxpayers of this state have in this federal court case and despite prior federal court rulings that courts must be open, a U.S. magistrate judge held a secret hearing on important motions excluding both the public and the media. He did so without issuing proper notice or publishing his reasons.

This is neither a confused area of the law nor an insignificant one. The Supreme Court of the United States settled this issue long ago. In 1980, the justices said open courts help ensure that prosecutors and judges don’t abuse their authority and that the public’s confidence in the court system is sustained. Open courts help protect the right of the defendants to a fair trial because people are watching.

“People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote. “When a criminal trial is conducted in the open, there is at least an opportunity both for understanding the system in general and its workings in a particular case.”

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to a public trial extended to preliminary hearings, in part because they have traditionally been open. The court cited the 1807 preliminary hearing for former Vice President Aaron Burr on treason charges, which was moved to a larger courtroom because of the crush of observers.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves overlooked all of that when he said the magistrate’s decision to close a hearing in the corruption case was justified because of the amount of pre-trial publicity. It is the court’s responsibility to protect the defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. But the Supreme Court has never said that should be accomplished while trampling the public’s right to open courtrooms. In fact, appeals courts have outlined alternatives so that hearings and trials are conducted in the open, allowing the public and the media access.

Defense attorneys complain often during a high-profile trial like this one that stories in newspapers about the case will make it difficult to seat a jury capable of meeting the Sixth Amendment’s standard of a fair trial. In response, Judge Reeves already has moved the trial from Frankfort to Covington, where much of the population does not work for the state government and is less likely to have read every story as intently as people who live in Central Kentucky.

While unsealing the transcript of the secret hearing, after attorneys for the Courier-Journal and the Herald-Leader objected, Judge Reeves chastised the media for keeping the public informed. "Everything that happens in this case ends up in the newspapers," Reeves said, according to The Courier-Journal. "There are certain things that don't need to be disclosed."

It is more than disappointing that a federal judge with a lifetime appointment shows such little respect for the role of a free press in a democratic society. Open courts are as important for public confidence in the judiciary as fair trials. Open courts help ensure fair trials. Federal judges and magistrates should understand the lessons the Supreme Court taught nearly 30 years ago.

Secrecy, the kind that occurred in this case, undermines both the First and Sixth amendments to the Constitution. Secrecy and democracy are enemies, and every judge should understand that.

Mike Farrell is the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center, and an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications, at the University of Kentucky.

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