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Judges must control security measures that affect access

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SECOND CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Oct. 27, 2005

Judges must control security measures that affect access

  • Requiring the public to show photo identification before entering a courthouse does not violate a criminal defendant’s fair trial rights, but the judicial branch must oversee courthouse access to ensure that court security measures do not unfairly limit public access to federal courthouses, an appellate panel ruled.

Oct. 27, 2005  ·   While finding that a security policy requiring court visitors to provide photo identification did not deprive a defendant the right to a public trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2nd Cir.) nonetheless ruled that district court judges are responsible for ensuring that security policies do not impair litigants’ right to a public trial.

A three-judge panel ruled Oct. 17 that the U.S. District Court in Rochester, N.Y., failed to evaluate whether the security measure affected Wendell Smith’s right to a public trial. The “district court erred in assuming that Smith’s rights could not be violated unless a court itself restricts courtroom access,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote for the panel. Moreover, “even if the district court did not itself initially enact the screening procedures,” he explained, “the district court, not the Marshals Service, controlled access to the courtrooms and ultimately ratified the screening proceeding by concluding that they were constitutionally permissible.”

Lawyers for Smith, convicted on federal firearms charges, appealed the trial court’s rejection of their request for a new trial, claiming that the court’s photo-ID policy violated Smith’s First and Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

The policy, requiring all courthouse visitors to provide photo identification, had been instituted at the federal court in Rochester after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The new security measure was part of a national policy by the U.S. Marshals Service to provide greater protection to federal buildings and courthouses.

Smith’s lawyers claimed that some of the defendant’s family members, litigation team, and the general public had been denied admission to the trial because of the policy.

The trial court concluded that Smith’s right to a public trial was not at issue because the court itself had not denied anyone trial access. On appeal, however, the panel rejected that reasoning. “Measures that limit the public’s access to federal buildings with courtrooms where public trials may be occurring implicate Sixth Amendment concerns,” Parker wrote.

The appellate panel concluded that the photo-id requirement had not violated Smith’s rights. The photo-ID requirement is narrow since it did not affect the entire public, but only a small subset of the population, and was no “broader than necessary to advance the security interest at stake.”

The appeals panel did not address whether Smith could bring a First Amendment open trial claim — which is meant to guarantee openness for the public and press — because even if he could, the same test used to determine a violation of the Sixth Amendment right applies.

In closing, the court noted its concern with the Marshals Service’s restriction of courthouse access and emphasized that the courts hold the “primary role” in controlling access to courthouse buildings. Parker cautioned the Marshals Service to coordinate security arrangements with the judiciary because it is attuned to the “delicate balance” between security and public trial rights.

(United States v. Smith; Defense counsel: Lawrence L. Kasperek, Rochester, N.Y.)SB

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