Can A Judge Close A Court Trial To The Public?

Posted on: 13 November 2014

Court trials often make for good drama. With more people becoming interested in the criminal law process and the ability to watch some trials on television, the rights of the public to watch everything has been questioned. Although Americans enjoy a constitutional right to witness trials, it might not always be possible. 

The First and Sixth Amendments

The First Amendment allows for freedom of the press. The media often uses this amendment to justify its request to be present during trials and to even broadcast them on television. 

The Sixth Amendment grants defendants the right to a public trial. Traditionally this meant that a defendant could assert his or her right to having people attend. It did not necessarily cover the media, but some media organizations have cited it in the past as a reason for why they should be allowed to cover high profile trials. 

Public Trial Exceptions

Although there are two amendments that all but guarantee that the public have access to court proceedings, it is sometimes not in the best interests of the public to actually allow it. Judges have been known to take steps such as sequestering juries and witnesses, not allowing cameras, and limiting the number of people in the courtrooms. 

A judge cannot arbitrarily decide when to close a courtroom. There has to be a good reason. For example, the safety of the witnesses, judge, defendant, lawyers, and other court personnel. In addition to safety, a judge could close a courtroom for:

  • Decency. During a trial, graphic evidence could be shown; for instance, pictures of an abuse victim's injuries. To avoid humiliating the victim, the judge might choose to limit who is allowed in the courtroom.
  • Privacy. In some instances, the identities of victims and witnesses are protected by law. For instance, victims of sexual assault are protected legally from having their identities published. Out of respect to those privacy laws, a judge could close the court.
  • National security. In cases involving sensitive information, such as classified government documents, the court can be closed in an effort to protect the nation. 

There are a few other instances a judge might cite for closing the courtroom. If you are the defendant in the trial and the judge has chosen to limit who is allowed in the courtroom, your attorney can file a motion with the court asking for the limitation to be lifted. 

The decision to close a courtroom is not an easy one for a judge. If the judge has chosen to close your trial to the public, he or she will cite exactly why. You and your attorney can explore other options for dealing with this challenge. If you are looking for a criminal defense attorney for your case, contact Kassel & Kassel A Group of Independent Law Offices.

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