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Sixth Amendment

Public Trial

The right to a public trial is another ancient liberty that Americans have inherited from Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. During the seventeenth century, when the English Court of Oyer and Terminer attempted to exclude members of the public from a criminal proceeding that the Crown had deemed to be sensitive, defendant John Lilburn successfully argued that immemorial usage and British COMMON LAW entitled him to a trial in open court where spectators are admitted. The Founding Fathers believed that public criminal proceedings would operate as a check against malevolent prosecutions, corrupt or malleable judges, and perjurious witnesses. The public nature of criminal proceedings also aids the fact-finding mission of the judiciary by encouraging citizens to come forward with relevant information, whether inculpatory or exculpatory.

Under the Public Trial Clause, friends and relatives of a defendant must be initially permitted to attend trial. However, the right to a public trial is not absolute, and parents, spouses, and children will be excluded if they disrupt the proceedings (Cosentino v. Kelly, 926 F. Supp. 391 [S.D.N.Y. 1996]). Toddlers and infants, ranging from one month to two years in age, may be summarily excluded from a courtroom consistent with the Sixth Amendment, even if the judge fails to articulate a reason for doing so (United States v. Short, 36 M.J. 802 [A.C.M.R. 1993]). Children in this age group are too young to understand legal proceedings, are easily agitated, and present a substantial risk of hindering a trial with distractions.

The Sixth Amendment right to a public trial is personal to the defendant and may not be asserted by the media or the public in general. However, both the public and media have a qualified FIRST AMENDMENT right to attend criminal proceedings. The First Amendment does not accommodate everyone who wants to attend a particular proceeding. Nor does the First Amendment require courts to televise any given legal proceeding. Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, have never been televised.

Courtrooms are areas of finite space and limited seating in which judges diligently attempt to maintain decorum. In cases that generate tremendous public interest, courts sometimes create lottery systems that randomly assign citizens a seat in the courtroom for each day of trial. A separate lottery may be established for the purpose of determining which members of the media are permitted access to the courtroom on a given day, although local and national newspapers and television stations may be given a permanent courtroom seat. Members of the media and public who are excluded from attending trial on a given day are sometimes provided admission to an audio room where they can listen to the proceedings.

In rare cases, criminal proceedings will be closed to all members of the media and the public. However, a compelling reason must be offered before a court will follow this course. For example, when the First Amendment rights of the media to attend a criminal trial collide with a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, the defendant's Sixth Amendment right takes precedence, and the legal proceeding may be closed (In re Globe Newspaper, 729 F.2d 47 [1st Cir. 1984]).

Criminal proceedings also have been conducted in private when the complaining witness is a child who is young and immature and is being asked to testify about an emotionally charged issue such as SEXUAL ABUSE (Fayer-weather v. Moran, 749 F. Supp. 43 [D.R.I. 1990]). If the court determines that only one stage of a legal proceeding will be jeopardized by the presence of the public or the media, then only that stage should be conducted in private (Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 104 S. Ct. 2210, 81 L. Ed. 2d 31 [1984]). For example, if a witness is expected to testify about classified government information or confidential trade secrets, the court may clear the courtroom for the duration of such tes timony, but no longer.

The right to a public trial extends to pretrial proceedings that are integral to the trial phase, such as jury selection and evidentiary hearings (Rovinsky v. McKaskle, 722 F.2d 197 [5th Cir. 1984]). Despite the strong constitutional preference for public criminal trials, both courts-martial and juvenile delinquency hearings typically are held in a closed session, even when they involve criminal wrongdoing. In all other proceedings, the defendant may waive his right to a public trial, in which case the entire criminal proceeding can be conducted in private.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Lemuel Shaw Biography to Special pleaSixth Amendment - Speedy Trial, Public Trial, Right To Trial By An Impartial Jury, Notice Of Pending Criminal Charges