Closed Trials is Whose Right?

Journalists, lawyers and judges interested in Fair Trial-Free Press and media-law issues will want to follow a couple of cases in Wisconsin that are headed for that state’s Supreme Court.

High court reviewing closed Fond du Lac trials

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will review two cases from Fond du Lac County where the judge closed the trials to the public – and the defendants later claimed their Constitutional rights were violated as a result.

According to this story posted today on a local TV station’s website, the defendants in both cases didn’t object when  trial judge ordered that members of the public be removed from the courtroom during jury selection in their trials “without complying with a standard four-part review.”

Now both are claiming on appeal that their Constitutional right to a public trial was violated.

The state says they lost that right when they failed to object at trial.

The Court of Appeals ducked by saying the question of when the objection has to occur is “unsettled law.”

Three things about this story disturb me and should disturb everyone in this country who care about a competent, effective media and about judicial transparency.

First, is that this story fails to say whether the judge gave a reason for closing the proceedings. Were the defendants acting out? Were they in gangs whose fellow gang members were in the courtroom intimidating prospective jurors? Without knowing, this looks like a clear violation of the law as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in Press Enterprise Co. vs. Superior Court (1984) which held that “The guarantees of open public proceedings in criminal trials cover proceedings for the voir dire examination of potential jurors. Pp. 464 U. S. 505-510.”

Second, the story fails to explain how the defendants say their rights were violated. Were jurors selected who wouldn’t have been had members of the public — or any one individual member of the public — been sitting in the courtroom observing the selection process?

Third, and most troubling, is that the judge, Richard Nuss, closed what from what the story tells its readers should have been a public proceeding not just once, but twice.

Yet, the news media, including the TV station reporting this story, reported on the January 2009 crime and July charges against defendant Nancy Pinno, and on her December 2009 sentencing

It also reported on the appellate court’s July 2010 ruling that upheld the conviction of the other defendant, Travis Seaton.

So where was the media when the judge closed those trials?

Unfortunately, news organizations have cut their budgets — or had their budgets cut by their parent corporations — that few if any journalists are able to serve a vital function of the press (which is universally known as the media), which is to be a government and private industry watchdog and inform the public, which does have a right to know, about malfeasance and violations of the law.




One response to “Closed Trials is Whose Right?

  1. I can answer all 3 of your questions…

    1. We weren’t (the public) allowed to enter the room as there “wasn’t enough room” as stated by Judge Richard Nuss.

    2. There were 3 jurors that would not have been in jury pool as they lied saying they were unbiased when myself, as well as others, knew otherwise. Yet it didn’t matter to the judge. Also he tried to argue to get us in the courtroom which mysteriously that part of the record cannot be found.

    3. Richard Nuss was blatently rude to all parties when trying to prove that Seatons rights were violated as well as mocking his attorney!!!

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