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Reporters Committee asks high court to keep jury selection public

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief today urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief today urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision that allows Georgia judges to bar the public from courtrooms during jury selection.

The judge overseeing Eric Presley’s drug trial ordered the public to leave the entire courthouse floor where jury selection (called voir dire) was taking place. The judge reportedly often conducted jury selection in secret, concerned that members of the public would speak to prospective jurors and unaware that the First and Sixth Amendments each create a presumption of public access to jury selection.

On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed that the public could be excluded from jury seletion, at least if the defendant does not suggest an alternative to closure.

"It’s not very often that the highest court of a state so flagrantly violates U.S. Supreme Court precedent," said Reporters Comittee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish.

Leah Ward Sears, then the state court’s chief justice, and Carol Hunstein, the current chief justice, dissented. “A room that is so small that it cannot accommodate the public is a room that is too small to accommodate a constitutional criminal trial,” they said. “[T]he majority’s reasoning permits the closure of voir dire in every criminal case conducted in this courtroom whenever the trial judge decides, for whatever reason, that he or she would prefer to fill the courtroom with potential jurors rather than spectators.”

In July, Presley asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that his right to a public trial under the Sixth Amendment was violated when the Georgia Supreme Court improperly “approved the routine closure of voir dire to the public” without the “case-specific findings” required to overcome the presumption of public access to criminal trials.

The Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also filed a brief today in support of Presley’s request for review. Presley v. Georgia, “and similar cases throughout the country, have abrogated the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a public voir dire,” it argued. “There is a need for guidance regarding procedures for closure, standards of review for closure, and where the burden lies for suggesting alternatives to closure.”

The Reporters Committee urged the high court to accept review, noting that the Georgia Supreme Court slighted the public’s First Amendment right to access to court proceedings as well as Presley’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. “The Court should reiterate that no party can waive the public’s independent First Amendment right of access to proceedings,” it said. “The First Amendment, perhaps even more than the Sixth, imposes on a trial court the independent obligation to safeguard the public interest by considering less restrictive alternatives to closure.”