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Court: Jury selection part of public trial

| Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the constitutional right to a public trial in criminal cases means that jury selection, including questioning of prospective jurors, should not be done behind closed doors.

By a 7-2 vote, the high court ruled for Eric Presley, a Georgia man convicted of cocaine trafficking. He argued his constitutional right to a public trial had been violated when the judge closed the courtroom during the questioning of prospective jurors.

The judge in Presley's trial justified the move by saying the room was too small to accommodate the potential jurors and the public.

The Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.

In the ruling, the Supreme Court disagreed with the judge's decision to close jury selection. It said Presley later showed that 14 prospective jurors could have fit in the jury box, the remaining 28 could have fit on one side of the courtroom and the public could have sat on the other side of the courtroom.

Although the ruling held that all aspects of jury selection should be conducted in public, it left open the possibility that for certain reasons, including the safety of prospective jurors, it could be closed in a specific case.

"Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials," the court majority said in its decision.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a journalists' rights group, supported Presley.

It said the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press, protects public access to questioning of prospective jurors. The group called such openness vital to ensure the basic fairness of a criminal trial.

The court ruled that the judge in the case could have reserved some rows for the public, could have divided up the group of prospective jurors to ease courtroom congestion and could have instructed possible jurors not to talk to those in the audience.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. "Today's decision belittles the efforts of our judicial colleagues who have struggled with these issues," Thomas wrote.

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