Law School Case Brief
Gannett Co. v. DePasquale County Court Judge - 443 U.S. 368, 99 S. Ct. 2898 (1979)
To safeguard the due process rights of the accused, a trial court has an affirmative constitutional duty to minimize the effects of prejudicial pretrial publicity. And because of the Constitution's pervasive concern for these due process rights, a trial court may surely take protective measures even when they are not strictly and inescapably necessary.
At a pretrial hearing on a motion to suppress allegedly involuntary confessions and certain physical evidence, respondents Greathouse and Jones, who were defendants in a state prosecution for second-degree murder, robbery, and grand larceny, requested that the public and the press be excluded from the hearing, arguing that the unabated buildup of adverse publicity had jeopardized their ability to receive a fair trial. The District Attorney did not oppose the motion, and a reporter employed by petitioner Gannett Company, whose newspapers had given extensive coverage of the crime through the defendants' indictment and arraignment, made no objection at the time of the closure motion though she was present in the courtroom. Respondent trial judge granted the motion, and, in response to the reporter's letter on the next day asserting a right to cover the hearing and requesting access to the transcript, stated that the suppression hearing had concluded and that any decision on immediate release of the transcript had been reserved. Petitioner then moved to have the closure order set aside but the trial judge, after a hearing, refused to vacate the order or grant petitioner immediate access to the transcript, ruling that the interest of the press and the public was outweighed by the defendants' right to a fair trial.
Petitioner newspaper immediately commenced a proceeding in the nature of prohibition and mandamus in the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, challenging the trial court's orders on First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. The Appellate Division vacated the orders, holding that they transgressed the public's vital interest in open judicial proceedings and further constituted an unlawful prior restraint in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The New York Court of Appeals, although holding that the case was technically moot because, shortly before entry of the Appellate Division's judgment, the two defendants had pleaded guilty to lesser included offenses and a transcript of the suppression hearing was made available to petitioner, nevertheless retained jurisdiction in view of the importance of the issues and upheld the exclusion of the press and the public from the pretrial proceeding. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Do members of the public have constitutional right under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to attend criminal trials?
On appeal, the judgment was affirmed. In support of its ruling, the Supreme Court held that while the Sixth Amendment guaranteed to a criminal defendant the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, nowhere is it mentioned that the public had any constitutional right of access to a criminal trial. Accordingly, the Court found that members of the public had no constitutional right under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to attend criminal trials. The Court further held that as the trial court's closure decision was based on an assessment of the competing societal interests involved rather than on any determination that First Amendment freedoms were not implicated, the court's actions were consistent with any right of access that petitioner may have had pursuant to the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
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