Although defendants may believe that their court trial should be confidential to preserve anonymity and privacy, the majority of the time the law disagrees. A key insight in the American political system was that transparency in the courts is more important than privacy concerns.

Public's Right to Witness and Access Court Proceedings

How American Law Guarantees Public Trial Access

The notion that the public has the right to witness trials in which they are not directly associated may seem like an invasion of privacy to those who are affected by the trial. However, except for a few notable exceptions (Link to Blog 9: “Exemptions to the Public Viewing Rights of Trial Hearings” not yet uploaded), four core principles of American law determine that the rights of the people outweigh the privacy rights of those taking part in the trial.

  • Common law traditions. Secret trials of criminals were an outrage in English history. The notorious Star Chamber was eventually abolished by Parliament in 1641. The legal rules that American courts inherited included a bias against secretive proceedings.
  • The Bill of Rights. The Sixth Amendment directly guarantees public trials for criminal cases. This is reinforced by the First Amendment’s position that the people and the press have a fundamental right to know about civic events.
  • Precedent law. In 1884, Oliver Wendell Homes—then an associate justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court—brought the importance of public trials to light by ruling that civil cases should be viewed (and critiqued) by the public. This ruling was based on the assertion that the public should be able to hold the court players (judge, attorneys, and jury) responsible for their actions and decisions to guarantee a sense of responsibility. This Massachusetts precedent eventually proved persuasive in other jurisdictions, spreading the right to publicly view civil and criminal trials as well as courtroom documents and transcripts.
  • Freedom of Information Act. The federal FOIA and numerous state information acts guarantee that the people of the country have a right to be informed of what all branches of the government are up to at all times; this includes the actions and decisions made within the judicial system.

Weighing In

Do you think that public interest should outweigh privacy rights? Should trials and trial records—both civil and criminal—be accessible by the masses? Does public second-guessing about court cases ultimately serve to weaken respect for our legal institutions?

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