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Law School Case Brief

Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia - 448 U.S. 555, 100 S. Ct. 2814 (1980)

Rule:

The right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of U.S. Const. amend. I.

Facts:

Before a criminal defendant's fourth trial on murder charges, his counsel filed a motion in the trial court that the trial be closed to the public. The prosecutor stated that he had no objection, and the trial court, relying on a Virginia statute providing that in the trial of all criminal cases, "the court may, in its discretion, exclude from the trial any persons whose presence would impair the conduct of a fair trial, provided that the right of the accused to a public trial shall not be violated," ordered that the courtroom be kept clear of all parties except the witnesses when they testified. Later that day, plaintiffs, Richmond Newspapers and its two reporters, sought a hearing on a motion to vacate the closure order. They had been present at the time the order was issued but made no objections to it. The court denied the motion to vacate and ordered the trial to continue with the press and public excluded, expressing his inclination to go along with the criminal defendant's motion so long as it did not completely override all rights of everyone else. Subsequently, the judge granted a defense motion to strike the prosecution's evidence and found defendant not guilty of murder, and the court granted the newspaper's motion to intervene nunc pro tunc in the case. The newspaper then petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court for writs of mandamus and prohibition and filed an appeal from the trial court's closure order. The Supreme Court of Virginia dismissed the mandamus and prohibition petitions and denied the petition for appeal.

Issue:

Was the court's order for trial to continue without the press and the public violative of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, i.e., right of access of the public and the press to criminal trials?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the trial court's closure order violated the right of access of the public and the press to criminal trials granted by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. According to the Court, there was a guaranteed right of the public under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to attend criminal trials and that absent an overriding interest articulated in findings, the trial of a criminal case must be open to the public. The Court emphasized that in the case at bar the trial judge made no findings to support closure, no inquiry was made as to whether alternative solutions would have met the need to insure fairness, and there was no recognition of any right under the Constitution for the public or press to attend the trial.

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