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High court upholds closure of hearing based on secret brief

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  1. Court Access
High court upholds closure of hearing based on secret brief 04/21/97 INDIANA--In late March, the Indiana Supreme Court in Indianapolis…

High court upholds closure of hearing based on secret brief


INDIANA–In late March, the Indiana Supreme Court in Indianapolis held that a trial court did not violate the state’s Access to Criminal Proceedings Act by closing a “jury management” hearing during a criminal trial without providing the public with an opportunity to object. In addition, the court permitted the trial judge to submit a secret brief explaining the circumstances surrounding the closure.

The access law provides that a court may not “order the exclusion of the general public from any criminal proceeding, unless it first affords the parties and the general public a meaningful opportunity to be heard on the issue of any proposed exclusion.” According to the Supreme Court, Warrick Superior Court Judge Edward Campbell acted within his discretion because the state law vests trial judges with the “inherent authority” to manage their courtrooms as they see fit.

The Evansville Courier challenged the closure, which occurred during the January triple-murder trial of John Stephenson in Boonville. Stephenson could get the death penalty, and his case has attracted extensive media attention.

In his brief to the Supreme Court, Campbell defended the closure as proper, in part because the parties wanted the hearing to be closed. Declining to discuss specifically the circumstances surrounding the closure to avoid revealing “the substance or character of the confidential information at issue,” the judge filed a second brief, entitled a “specific response,” and asked the court to review that document in chambers.

The Courier objected to the secret brief, arguing that it “compound[ed] the public’s injury and denied the newspaper the opportunity to fully argue the merits of the closure order.” The Courier maintained that the closure violated the access law, the constitutional presumption favoring open judicial proceedings and the state open records law.

Campbell cleared his courtroom without giving the media or public an opportunity to object. During the hearing, which was reportedly held to address a jury management problem, only the defense, prosecution and several jurors were permitted to remain. (Indiana v. Stephenson; Media Counsel: Patrick Shoulders, Evansville)