In a landmark ruling that grants the media and public a qualified First Amendment right of access to civil trials in South Dakota, the state's highest court held that a trial judge erred in barring access to a trial that settled a familial dispute over a popular area tourist attraction.
The ruling last Thursday means that South Dakota now joins the majority of states and federal courts that extend these rights to civil court proceedings and documents, not just criminal trials.
Justices unanimously decided that Rapid City Circuit Court Judge John Delaney's orders closing the courtroom, sealing the records and issuing gag orders in the 2010 trial to determine the fate of Bear Country USA were too broad, restricting public access to more portions of the trial and record than necessary to protect confidential information, financial documents and other privacy interests of the parties.
Although the decision comes too late to apply to the already-concluded Bear Country USA proceedings, advocates said the decision represents a greater victory because it sets an important precedent for future cases.
“To not have pushed it, to not have sued over it, would have left it unchallenged,” said David Bordewyk, the general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, one of the parties that brought the suit against the judge.
“Now a judge may say all I have to do is look at what happened in Rapid City. It’s important to have this on the books for others to look to for guidance,” he said.
The case began when Delaney granted requests to close the civil trial that determined the fair value of Bear Country USA. Family members on both sides of the financial dispute asked the judge to keep trial proceedings and documents private in order to protect what they claimed were “trade secrets.”
The Associated Press, The Rapid City Journal and the South Dakota Newspaper Association then sued to strike down the judge’s orders, claiming the rulings violated their First Amendment rights to access and report on the trial.
“The public has a right to know what takes place in a courtroom, whether in a criminal trial or civil trial, and the media needs to have access to records and the courts to fairly report what takes place there,” The Rapid City Journal wrote in an editorial following the ruling. “While the decision is a victory for the media organizations that filed the case to overturn Delaney’s rulings, it is also a victory for the public, whose right of access to the courts has been affirmed.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the public has a First Amendment right to access criminal courts unless the state can prove an essential “compelling governmental interest” that is “narrowly tailored” for restricting access.
The country’s highest court has never decided whether the same rights apply to civil proceedings, however, leaving the decisions to federal appeals courts and states. Last week’s ruling marks the first time these rights have been explicitly extended to civil courts in South Dakota.