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Court rejects closed questioning of potential jurors

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled last week that a trial court's questioning of potential jurors in the judge's chambers constituted…

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled last week that a trial court's questioning of potential jurors in the judge's chambers constituted a potentially impermissible closure of court proceedings to the public. However, the court sent the appeal back to the trial court to determine whether the defendant had waived his right to a public trial.

The appellate court in Commonwealth v. Grant first addressed whether the trial court had impermissibly excluded members of the criminal defendant's family from the general questioning of the potential jurors, which was otherwise open to the public. Concluding that factual issues remained about the issue, the appellate court sent the matter back to the trial court for fact finding.

The court then examined whether the trial court violated the criminal defendant's right to a public trial by excluding the defendant and the public from the court's questioning of individual potential jurors. With the consent of defense counsel, the trial court had conducted the questioning of the individual jurors in chambers. The parties' attorneys were present at the questioning, but the defendant and the public were not.

The appellate court's opinion recognized that defendants and the public have the right to have criminal proceedings occur in open court, including the jury selection process. Quoting prior U.S. Supreme Court and Massachusetts case law, the court emphasized that "an open court room ‘enhances both the basic fairness of the criminal trial and the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system.'"

The trial court's private questioning of the potential jurors "constituted a full closure" of the court proceedings "in the constitutional sense," the appellate court explained. Such a closure could only be justified if the trial court first considered other alternatives and made specific findings that demonstrated the need for the specific closure, the court said. Because the trial court did not make such findings in this case, the closure was not justified.

Nonetheless, the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the defendant waived his right to a public trial. Quoting from earlier state court decisions, the court's opinion declared that "the right to a public trial, like other structural rights, can be waived."

The court noted that the wavier analysis is not limited to assessing whether the defendant had waived his own right to be present during juror questioning. Instead, it also requires assessing whether the defendant had waived his right to have his friends and the public present during the questioning also, the appellate court said.

The Dec. 17 opinion in Commonwealth v. Grant is available on the Reporter of Decisions' website for the Massachusetts Court.