Skip to content

Court won't consider question of public access to civil trials

Post categories

  1. Court Access

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts         Mar 21, 2000    

Court won’t consider question of public access to civil trials

  • The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a petition to review a North Carolina judge’s decision to close the courtroom in a doctor’s suit against a hospital that found he “posed a serious risk to the health and safety of its patients.”

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 20 declined to hear a case concerning whether the public has a presumptive constitutional right to attend civil trials.

The Court denied the petition for review that had been filed by Knight Publishing on behalf of The Charlotte Observer. The petition had been supported by a friend-of-the-court brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and joined by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The petition sought to solidify the right of the public to attend judicial proceedings. In 1980, the Court ruled that the public had a presumptive First Amendment right to attend criminal trials. The petition and friend-of-the-court brief argued that the Supreme Court should hear argument on the case and then rule that the same First Amendment right also applies to civil trials, a conclusion that numerous lower federal and state courts have previously reached.

The case concerned a trial judge’s decision to overrule Charlotte Observer reporter John Hechinger’s objection to the closing of the courtroom for a hearing of pending summary judgment motions. The judge also denied the request of Hechinger, who is now a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, for a delay in the hearing to allow him to contact the newspaper’s attorney and then ejected Hechinger from his courtroom. On the next day, the trial court denied The Charlotte Observer‘s motion for intervention without allowing a hearing.

The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s rulings, finding that the presumption of openness in civil proceedings under the state and federal constitutions did not create a right for the public to argue against the closure of a courtroom. The petition had appealed from the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling.

In 1996, Dr. Ron Virmani filed suit against The Presbyterian Hospital for the revocation of his privileges in Charlotte, North Carolina. Previously, the hospital had concluded that Virmani’s medical judgment “posed a serious risk to the health and safety of its patients” and suspended Virmani’s medical privileges at the hospital.

(Knight Publishing Co. v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp., Media Counsel: John Hasty, Charlotte)

Related stories:

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Return to: RCFP Home; News Page