On Monday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in Weaver v. Massachusetts.
On its surface, the case concerns a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, but an underlying and critical issue is the public's right of access to jury selection proceedings, also known as voir dire. During the criminal trial in Weaver, the court was closed during voir dire to because of overcrowding in the courtroom.
While the defendant has a right under the Sixth Amendment to an open jury selection process, RCFP and SPJ urge the Supreme Court to consider the public’s independent but related First Amendment right in resolving this case. In their brief, RCFP and SPJ elaborate on the importance of open voir dire in ensuring the fairness of a trial, and the integrity of the criminal justice system as a whole.
“The public has a First Amendment right to access criminal trials, and courtroom congestion is not a compelling enough reason to override that right and close jury selection proceedings,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown. “Safeguarding public access to court and jury proceedings adds a layer of accountability to our judicial system, and we must ensure that those processes remain open.”
The brief also points out that the public and the press cannot practically assert this right in every instance, so it's up to courts to safeguard the public's independent interests in open criminal proceedings. The fundamental importance of open jury selection suggests that prejudice should be presumed when jury selection is closed in violation of the First and Sixth Amendments.
In earlier cases, the Supreme Court recognized that the public has a First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings. In a 1984 decision, for example, the Court held that the First Amendment provides the press and the public with a presumptive right to witness jury selection. And in 2010, the Supreme Court held that the defendant is also guaranteed a public jury selection, through the Sixth Amendment. In that case, Presley v. Georgia, RCFP wrote an amicus brief emphasizing the public's interest in open jury selection.
Oral argument in Weaver is scheduled for April 19, and the Court is expected to decide the case this term.