Court finds access right to civil trials
CALIFORNIA–The state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles held in mid- September that the public has a First Amendment right of access in civil trials and that a court-imposed delay in releasing transcripts of closed hearings constituted an impermissible prior restraint on publication.
Media groups, including KNBC-TV and the Los Angeles Times, challenged a closure order issued by Superior Court Judge David Schacter in an ongoing lawsuit between actors Sondra Locke and Clint Eastwood. Schacter barred the public from attending proceedings that occurred outside the presence of the jury, and delayed release of the transcripts until the trial concluded, stating that closure was necessary to limit the jurors’ exposure to inadmissible evidence.
The appellate court found that Schacter’s order did not meet the exacting standard warranting closure. While noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized a First Amendment right of access to civil trials, the high court has recognized that open and public civil trials are “essential to the justice system.” The appellate court also relied on Supreme Court precedent holding that criminal trials are presumptively open.
The court stated that, as with criminal trials, the right of access to civil trials is not absolute, and must be balanced against the parties’ rights to a fair trial and any governmental interest in limiting disclosure of sensitive information. However, a party seeking closure must advance an overriding interest based on findings that it is essential to preserve a compelling interest, and the order must be narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The court pointed out that, according to the Supreme Court, jurors’ exposure to inadmissible evidence does not necessarily result in an unfair trial.
The court found that Schacter’s order was deficient because it failed to specify the nature of the inadmissible evidence, and because the record was devoid of any evidence that the admissibility of evidence was litigated, or that the judge considered other less restrictive means to protect the parties’ rights, such as admonishing jurors to disregard news reports.
The court also held that the delay in releasing the transcripts constituted a prior restraint on speech and publication, which is “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” (NBC v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County; Media Counsel: Kelli Sager, Los Angeles)