Law School Case Brief
Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California - 464 U.S. 501, 104 S. Ct. 819 (1984)
The presumption of openness in a criminal trial may be overcome only by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The interest is to be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order is properly entered.
Before the voir dire examination of prospective jurors began at a trial in California Superior Court for the rape and murder of a teenage girl, petitioner local press filed a motion for the voir dire be open to the public and the press. Respondent State opposed the motion, arguing that if the press were present, juror responses would lack the candor necessary to assure a fair trial. The trial judge agreed and permitted the petitioner to attend the "general" but not the "individual" voir dire proceedings. All but approximately three days of the six-week voir dire was thus closed to the public. After the jury was empaneled, petitioner moved for release of the complete transcript of the voir dire proceedings, but both defense counsel and the prosecutor argued that release of the transcript would violate the jurors' right to privacy. The court denied the motion and, after the defendant had been convicted and sentenced to death, denied petitioner's second application for release of the voir dire transcript. Petitioner then sought in the California Court of Appeal a writ of mandate to compel the superior court to release the transcript and vacate the order closing the voir dire proceedings. The petition was denied, and the California Supreme Court denied petitioner's request for a hearing. The case was appealed on certiorari.
Are voir dire proceedings covered under the guarantees of open public proceedings in criminal trials?
The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the ruling, vacated the judgment of the court of appeals, and remanded the case for further proceedings. After an examination of both the First and the Fifth Amendments and the historical backdrops against which each were enacted, the Court concluded that the trial judge should have sealed only such parts of the transcript as necessary to preserve the anonymity of the individuals sought to be protected. The primacy of the petitioner's presumptive right to an open trial prevailed over the government's interest in denying deny the right of access in order to inhibit the disclosure of sensitive information. The government failed to show that such a denial was necessitated by a compelling governmental interest and was narrowly tailored to serve that interest.
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