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High court throws out newspapers' court access request

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    NMU         VIRGINIA         Secret Courts         Apr 27, 2000    

High court throws out newspapers’ court access request

  • A split court ruled that the news media must try to intervene in a case for purposes of seeking access to the courtroom before they can appeal a courtroom closure to an intermediate appellate court.

A sharply-divided Virginia Supreme Court ruled on April 19 that the news media must file a motion to intervene in a case in which a judge has closed a courtroom before requesting that an appellate court reverse the trial judge.

In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the efforts of newspapers in two recent cases to open up preliminary hearings in juvenile and domestic relations courts failed because the media sought review of the trial court’s decisions without first formally intervening in the case.

“The newspapers were entitled to intervene in the respective preliminary hearings for the limited purpose of asserting their objections to the juvenile and domestic relations district courts’ rulings barring them from the courtrooms,” the majority opinion stated. “The juvenile and domestic relations district court judges would have been required to grant the motions to intervene and consider the newspapers’ objections.”

The dissent contended that the majority’s procedural requirement of intervening in a case destroyed the media’s First Amendment rights. “The majority acknowledges, without specifically addressing ‘their purported statutory and constitutional claims,’ the right of the news media to have access to preliminary hearings conducted in juvenile and domestic relations district courts and to challenge the closure of such hearings,” the dissent argued. “In my opinion, the majority fails to provide an ‘adequate’ remedy for a denial of that right by requiring the news media to ‘intervene’ in those hearings and then to appeal any adverse order that may have been entered by these courts.”

The appeal concerned two instances in which trial courts denied newspapers’ efforts to keep preliminary hearings open to the public.

One case concerned a joint preliminary hearing of two juvenile defendants charged with murder. There, upon request of the lawyers for the defendant, the trial judge announced that he was closing the hearing to the public without making any formal findings of fact supporting his decision. Reporters for the Lynchburg News & Advance and The Roanoke Times immediately requested a continuance until media lawyers could appear to argue against closure. The trial judge rejected the request.

The second case concerned a preliminary hearing in a case involving allegations of sexual assault upon juveniles against two adult defendants, including the Alberta police chief. Before the hearing, Richmond Newspapers filed a motion to keep the hearing open to the public. The Commonwealth’s Attorney filed a motion for a closed hearing but presented no evidence in support. The trial court granted the motion after concluding that closure was necessitated by the age of the alleged victims.

In both cases, the newspapers successfully sought writs from intermediate appellate courts that directed the trial judges to open up the hearings. It was from those order that the Virginia Attorney General appealed to the state Supreme Court.

(Hertz v. Times-World Corporation; Mason v. Richmond Newspapers; Media Counsel: D. Stan Barnhill, Roanoke, and Alexander Wellford, Richmond)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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