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Blades v. United States

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  1. Court Access

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 17 organizations

Court: District of Columbia Court of Appeals

Date Filed: April 8, 2019

Update: In October 2019, the D.C. Court of Appeals denied Blades’ petition for rehearing. On Jan. 29, 2020, Blades submitted a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to decide whether barring members of the public from hearing jury selection proceedings violates the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

On Feb. 28, 2020, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to grant Blades’ petition for writ of certiorari. The brief makes the following arguments:

  • The First Amendment right of access to criminal trials is separate and distinct to the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
  • The ability to hear judicial proceedings is a necessary component of the First Amendment right of access.
  • Public access to jury selection gives citizens the opportunity to monitor the criminal justice system and helps ensure fair trials.
  • Releasing a transcript of jury selection after it ends is not an adequate substitute for real-time access, as it denies journalists the opportunity to report promptly on first-hand observations.

Background: During the 2019 criminal trial of Jonathan Blades, a judge from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia questioned prospective jurors while using a white noise machine known as a “husher.”

After his conviction, Blades petitioned the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, asking it to reverse his conviction on the grounds that, among other things, the use of a husher during jury selection, or voir dire, violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. On appeal, a divided panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the use of a husher did not constitute a courtroom closure because the public was permitted to remain in the courtroom and see what was going on and because transcripts of the jury selection were later made available to the public. As a result, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that Blades’ Sixth Amendment rights were not violated and affirmed his conviction.

Blades then filed a petition to request rehearing, or rehearing before the entire appeals court bench.

Our Position: The D.C. Court of Appeals should grant Blades’ petition for rehearing.

  • The First Amendment creates a strong presumption of public access to all aspects of criminal trials, including jury selection.
  • The news media frequently acts as a surrogate for the public by attending and reporting on jury selection.
  • The use of a husher is permissible only if First Amendment requirements are satisfied.

Quote: “The right to observe a judicial proceeding necessarily includes the right to listen to what is being said. The public’s right of access to judicial proceedings would be hollow if all it guaranteed was a right to be physically present in the courtroom.”

Related: In 2009, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision that allows Georgia judges to bar the public from courtrooms during jury selection.

In 2003, the Reporters Committee urged the U.S. Supreme court to review a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that allowed judges to prohibit the press from conducting post-trial interviews with jurors.