The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Georgia's high court incorrectly upheld a trial judge's decision that the public could be barred from jury selection in a drug trial, ruling that jury selection in criminal trials is presumptively open and judges must consider alternatives to closure.
The 7-2 majority opinion in Presley v. Georgia, which was remanded to the lower court without oral argument, said that the Constitution guarantees both defendants and the public the right to public jury selections.
"The Sixth Amendment right, as the quoted language makes explicit, is the right of the accused. The Court has further held that the public trial right extends beyond the accused and can be invoked under the First Amendment," read the majority opinion, which was not signed by any single justice.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press previously filed a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the court to consider the First Amendment issues at stake in the matter.
The case began when a Georgia trial court told defendant Eric Presley's uncle that he could not sit in the courtroom during jury selection because “[t]here just isn’t space for them to sit” in the “very small courtrooms” and that the public should vacate the entire sixth floor of the courthouse to avoid intermingling with potential jurors.
Presley objected and appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which agreed that the public has a presumptive right to access jury selections in criminal cases but said Presley did not offer the judge concrete alternatives to closure.
Two justices, including the state court’s chief justice, dissented from that opinion, writing “[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."
A main point in the majority opinion the court published on Tuesday was that the burden is on the judge to come up with alternatives to closing the courtroom — the onus is not on the defendant's counsel to suggest them.
"[T]he Supreme Court of Georgia concluded, despite our explicit statements to the contrary, that trial courts need not consider alternatives to closure absent an opposing party’s proffer of some alternatives," the opinion read. "Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials. Nothing in the record shows that the trial court could not have accommodated the public at Presley’s trial."
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented from the opinion, saying the precedent the court cited was far from clear. Thomas wrote that "today’s decision belittles the efforts of our judicial colleagues who have struggled with these issues in attempting to interpret and apply the same opinions upon which the Court so confidently relies today."