U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules Defendant Has Right to Open Voir Dire

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed the cocaine trafficking conviction of a defendant who claims his Sixth Amendment rights to a public trial were violated when the trial court excluded his uncle from voir dire.

The high court granted certiorari and ruled on behalf of defendant Eric Presley in a per curiam opinion (PDF). In a dissent, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said the court should not have decided the question without full briefing and argument.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the trial court had not considered the alternatives to closure when it ousted Presley’s uncle on the ground that the relative should not be sitting in the same audience with prospective jurors. Presley’s lawyer had objected, to no avail.

“Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials,” the opinion said. “Nothing in the record shows that the trial court could not have accommodated the public at Presley’s trial. Without knowing the precise circumstances, some possibilities include reserving one or more rows for the public; dividing the jury venire panel to reduce courtroom congestion; or instructing prospective jurors not to engage or interact with audience members.”

The Supreme Court said its previous rulings had made clear that the public had a First Amendment right of access to voir dire. Defendants should not have lesser rights to public proceedings under the Sixth Amendment, the opinion said. “There is no legitimate reason, at least in the context of jury selection proceedings, to give one who asserts a First Amendment privilege greater rights to insist on public proceedings than the accused has.”

The dissent, written by Thomas, said that the question of whether a defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to open voir dire was undecided, at least until today’s ruling. “I am unwilling to decide this important question summarily without the benefit of full briefing and argument,” he said.

“Besides departing from the standards that should govern summary dispositions, today’s decision belittles the efforts of our judicial colleagues who have struggled with these issues in attempting to interpret and apply the same opinions upon which the court so confidently relies today.”

The opinion is Presley v. Georgia. Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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