OPEN COURTS -- KSBW TV (Salinas) President and General Manager Joseph Heston editorializes about a judge's decision to close the courtroom for a preliminary hearing in a murder case, especially in light of the current celebration of Sunshine week.
judges decision on Wednesday in a Watsonville criminal trial. Its the
case of Veva Virgil; shes accused of killing her three-year-old child,
and during Wednesdays preliminary hearing -- thats the hearing where
the judge decides if theres enough evidence to proceed to trial -- the
judge closed the courtroom! Nobody except the defendant, her attorney,
and the prosecutor were allowed in the court to witness the hearings.
Now to be clear: this isnt a simple matter of the judge prohibiting
cameras from the court. As broadcasters, we are repeatedly mystified by
the provincial mindset of judges who think cameras have no place in a
courtroom. But thats another editorial for another day. In this
case, Judge John Salazar has said NOBODY is allowed to witness these
hearings. And that should be of grave concern to anybody and everybody
who cares about how our government operates.
The closure of preliminary hearings has become a lot more rare than the heyday of such practices in the late 70s and early 80s, mostly because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision stemming from the closure of such a hearing in Riverside. In Press-Enterprise v. Superior Court, then Chief Justice Burger wrote for the court:
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.
478 U.S. 1, 13 (1986). Three facts are striking in the sole print news report about this closure. The first is that no reference is made to any findings by the Watsonville court, as required by the First Amendment. The second is that although the order banished no fewer than five news organizations from the courtroom, none appears to have summoned a lawyera response that would have been certain a generation ago. The third is that the closest newspaper even to report the banishment was in San Jose, 47 highway miles away. Do we see where the collapse of the daily press is leading?