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Law School Case Brief

Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court - 478 U.S. 1, 106 S. Ct. 2735 (1986)


Since a qualified First Amendment right of access attaches to preliminary hearings in California under Cal. Penal Code Ann. § 858 et seq. (1985), the proceedings cannot be closed unless specific, on the record findings are made demonstrating that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. If the interest asserted is the right of the accused to a fair trial, the preliminary hearing shall be closed only if specific findings are made demonstrating that, first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent and, second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant's fair trial rights.


The State of California filed a criminal complaint that charged a nurse with 12 counts of murdering patients by administering massive doses of a heart drug. The accused fiiled a motion to exclude the public from the preliminary hearing, which was granted. The magistrate found that the closure was necessary because the case had attracted national publicity. The press organization filed a peremptory writ of mandate to compel respondent Superior Court of California for the County of Riverside to release the transcript of a preliminary hearing in a criminal case. The accused argued that the release of the transcript would result in prejudicial pretrial publicity. The California Supreme Court denied the peremptory writ of mandate, holding that there was no general First Amendment right of access to preliminary hearings. The case was appealed.


Does the First Amendment right of access to criminal trials apply to preliminary hearings?




The United States Supreme Court reversed the state supreme court's judgment finding that the First Amendment right of access to criminal trials applied to preliminary hearings. The Court also found that public access to criminal trials and the selection of jurors was essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system and that preliminary hearings were sufficiently like a trial to justify the same conclusion. In reversing the judgment, the Court concluded that the standard applied by the state supreme court failed to consider the First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings.

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