High court admonishes trial judges for closing courtrooms
SOUTH CAROLINA–The state Supreme Court in Columbia unanimously held in mid-January that two Charleston judges presiding over high- profile criminal cases erred in closing their courtrooms to the public. The court “admonish[ed] the bench and bar” that a court must make particularized findings of prejudice before a trial judge may properly order the closure of a hearing.
In the first case, Circuit Judge Larry Patterson announced last March that he was closing a bond hearing for an attorney charged with murder and driving under the influence, citing concerns that prejudicial information could be revealed during the proceeding. Patterson denied an attending reporter’s request for a continuance to challenge the closure.
In the second case, Circuit Judge M. Duane Shuler excluded the public from a February pretrial hearing for Bob Waters, a former talk show host arrested on conspiracy and bribery charges, because discussion about an alleged confession could have negative repercussions on jury selection.
The (Charleston) Post and Courier and WCIV-TV appealed both rulings to the Supreme Court, seeking access to the proceedings on First Amendment and common law grounds or, in the alternative, to transcripts. The media groups pointed out that in neither case did defense attorneys seek closure.
The court noted that a 1992 press access decision by the state Supreme Court, which is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, found that the public has a First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings that cannot be truncated in the absence of a substantial probability of prejudice to the defendant.
The court observed that judges can determine through questioning whether potential jurors were prejudiced by pretrial disclosures. (Ex parte First Charleston Corporation; Media Counsel: John Kerr, Columbia)