CALIFORNIA–The state Supreme Court in San Francisco in late July unanimously upheld the public’s right to be present during civil trials and set out guidelines limiting circumstances under which judges may close such proceedings to the public.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the First Amendment requires criminal trials to be open to the public and the media in most circumstances, but it has not affirmed a similar constitutional right in civil proceedings. In the state court decision, Chief Justice Ronald George wrote that “the public has an interest, in all civil cases, in observing and assessing the performance of its public judicial system, and that interest strongly supports a general right of access in ordinary civil cases.”
Media groups, including KNBC-TV and the Los Angeles Times, challenged closure of a trial involving actor Clint Eastwood and his former companion, actress Sondra Locke. Locke charged that Eastwood used his clout with Warner Bros. to hurt her chances at a directing career after their messy split-up in 1989.
The court said a trial court must provide public notice that a closure is under consideration and hold a hearing before “substantive” proceedings are closed or transcripts are sealed. Before closure the court must find that there is an overriding interest supporting closure, that the closure is as narrowly focused as possible and that there are no less restrictive means of protecting the proceedings. The court ruled that the trial court did not meet these standards.
Furthermore, the court record did not establish any compelling need to close the proceedings, it said. The trial court did not show “that the traditional means of countering inadmissible, prejudicial information — regular and specific cautionary jury admonitions and instructions — did not constitute an adequate and less intrusive means of accomplishing the goal of ensuring a fair trial,” the high court said.
Superior Court Judge David Schacter in Burbank had barred the public from attending proceedings that occurred outside the presence of the jury and delayed release of the transcripts until the trial concluded, stating that closure was necessary to limit the jurors’ exposure to inadmissible evidence.
The media appealed the court’s closure order. The state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles held in September 1996 that the public has a First Amendment right of access in civil trials and that a court- imposed delay in releasing transcripts of closed hearings constituted an impermissible prior restraint on publication. Los Angeles County appealed to the state high court. (NBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV), Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County; Media Counsel: Kelli Sager, Los Angeles)