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Judge gets dressing-down for holding criminal proceedings in robing room

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  1. Court Access

    News Media Update         SECOND CIRCUIT         Secret Courts         Feb. 1, 2005    

Judge gets dressing-down for holding criminal proceedings in robing room

  • A federal appeals court panel remanded two drug cases for new proceedings that must be held in open court.

Feb. 1, 2005 — The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2d Cir.) ruled that a federal district judge violated the public’s right of access to court proceedings when she conducted sentencing and plea proceedings in her robing room.

U.S. District Judge Shirley Wohl Kram of the Southern District of New York apparently decided on her own to hold proceedings in two separate cases in the robing room, a private area next to the courtroom where judges don their robes. Prosecutors said it was her “customary practice” to do so. Behind closed doors, Kram sentenced Carlos Goiry to more than 11 years in prison in January 2002 and accepted a guilty plea from Luz Marina Munoz in October 2002.

Both defendants appealed their convictions for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, although only Munoz complained about the judge’s decision to accept her plea in the robing room. No member of the public or press complained about the secret proceedings either. Nevertheless, the appeals court indicated that because “more than the rights of the defendant and the government are at stake,” it would exercise its rarely used supervisory power to correct the lower court’s mistake.

“The error is not harmless when viewed from the perspective of the public and press,” the court stated. “Indeed, the error harms the integrity of our federal judicial system as a whole.”

The appeals court ruled that the court’s actions violated the First Amendment, as well as a rule of criminal procedure and a federal statute requiring such proceedings to be held in open court. It vacated Munoz’s plea and Goiry’s sentencing, sending both cases back to the trial court for new proceedings in a public courtroom.

After declaring that “[t]he public and press have a qualified First Amendment right of access to plea and sentencing proceedings,” the court noted that Kram failed to notify the public of her intention to close the proceedings, pursuant to a 1984 case called In re The Herald Co. She also made no findings on the record demonstrating the need for closure, nor was there any indication of circumstances in either case that would justify closing the proceedings.

“The public and press have a right to trust that the rules and procedures we have established will be followed,” the appeals court stated in its Jan. 24 decision.

The court rejected the government’s argument that the First Amendment was not violated because the public had access to the transcripts of the proceedings. The court quoted from an earlier case in which it stated, “The ability to see and hear a proceeding as [it] unfolds is a vital component of the First Amendment right of access — not, as the government describes, an incremental benefit.”

The court also rejected the prosecution’s contention that Munoz’s proceeding was not actually closed because the parties assembled in the courtroom before adjourning to the robing room, and nobody was denied access to the robing room. “It seems quite unlikely that a spectator in the courtroom would have felt at liberty to follow the parties into the robing room under the circumstances,” the court stated.

(U.S. v. Alcantara)KK

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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