WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Constitution's guarantee of a public trial means judges may not ordinarily close their courtrooms during jury selection.
In an unsigned 7-2 opinion, the court set aside the cocaine trafficking conviction of a Georgia man who challenged the trial judge's decision to prohibit the public from attending proceedings in which lawyers questioned prospective jurors.
It ruled that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee to the accused of a "speedy and public trial" meant that the public must be allowed into the part of the trial where potential jurors are questioned. The court had already ruled that the First Amendment meant such procedures should be open.
The court repeated that trial judges must consider all alternatives before moving to close a trial. "Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials," the opinion said.
The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to insist on a public trial, extending even to jury selection, the court said. In earlier rulings, the court had said that the public and the news media could assert their right to attend all the phases of a trial.
The significance of Tuesday's ruling is that it gives defendants the ability to insist on a courtroom that is open to the public even when there is no news media interest in a case.
The Georgia defendant, Eric Presley, objected to the judge's decision to prevent his uncle from watching jury selection.
Judges must consider reasonable alternatives to closing their courtrooms, the court said. The Georgia Supreme Court said it was not always necessary to do that.
The high court said there might be reasons for keeping the public out, including the threat of improper communications with jurors or safety concerns.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia. Thomas said the court should not have summarily reversed the Georgia court.
A similar issue arose in a case in Wichita.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last week that Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert did not follow proper legal procedure before keeping the public out of court. The opinion, by Chief Justice Robert Davis, said Wilbert must balance "the defendant's right to a fair trial with the public's and media's rights to access judicial proceedings."