Georgia Court Of Appeals Issues Harsh Reminder On Public Trials
November 4, 2016 (Fault Lines) – What do the Spanish Inquisition, the English Court of Star Chamber, Las Vegas, and “nonsense on stilts” have in common? All of these terms were invoked yesterday by the Court of Appeals of Georgia in an opinion reinforcing the importance of public trials.
There is very little question Randy Jackson was a bad man. He was accused of molesting his stepdaughter and pretty much admitted it. It seems he conceded almost all of the evidence against him.
The victim in the case had an understandably difficult task in front of her as trial approached. The witness stand in a jury trial is an intimidating place to be under any circumstances. Testifying against your parent about graphic sexual acts is a particularly daunting task, especially for a teenager.
Daunting as that task may be, it is necessary. There is a reason the Court of Appeals began its opinion with references to the most sinister aspect of the Spanish Inquisition and the Star Chamber: secret trials.
We don’t have secret trials, or closed courtrooms, here in modern America. The reason is simple. Think about how you act in the comfort of your living room as opposed to how you act in public. The only people who claim to behave the same in both places are liars.
The idea of making a teenager testify against her stepfather, in a public trial, about horrible acts, may turn your stomach. But regardless of how uncomfortable it is, that public trial is an integral part of the criminal justice system.
Of course, most people think the only “integral part” of the justice system is to make sure the accused becomes the convicted as quickly and efficiently as possible. Sadly, appellate courts often fall in line with that thinking, presenting nothing more than a procedural speed bump in the fast lane to a cold prison cell. Somewhere between “overwhelming evidence” and “harmless error,” the Bill of Rights becomes the Bill of Suggested Rights as Long as They Don’t Get in the Way of a Staggering Prison Sentence.
So it is pleasantly surprising the Court of Appeals of Georgia took an active role in jerking the State back down to Earth and protecting the sanctity of a criminal courtroom, regardless of who benefits.
At Jackson’s trial, the State moved to close the courtroom during Jackson’s victim’s testimony. The trial court said sure, this is a trial and the State gets what the State wants granted the motion. The appellate opinion reflects that there was very little discussion before the court granted the motion.
The State is probably a little butthurt at suffering a rare loss in an appellate courtroom. One would hope its appellate arguments were the product of institutional arrogance, as opposed to sheer incompetence. Or blatant dishonesty.
The State argued on appeal it had not moved to close the courtroom. It claimed it just wanted to remove the defendant’s family. It must have forgotten there is a record of exactly what everybody said in the courtroom:
Your Honor, actually, the motion was to close the courtroom to any personnel who is not necessary to the trial, specifically, the family members, but also to anyone else who is not necessary during this.
In other words, they wanted everybody out.
Some courts might be more forgiving, referring to a misstatement of the record or some other harmless sounding description of what amounts to typical government bullshit. Not the Georgia Court of Appeals, who apparently grew a pair overnight. The Court called the argument what it was: nonsense.
With thoughts of Vegas in their heads, the appellate judges noted the State then proceeded to “double down” in their appellate argument. The State argued press were courtroom personnel, so the press wasn’t excluded from the courtroom. That might give legs to the argument this trial was actually public. Except for the fact there was no evidence any press was present at this trial. So those legs were kind of weak. Or, to quote the Court of Appeals, “nonsense on stilts.”
Closing a courtroom during a trial is a rare occurrence, not to be taken lightly. When working correctly, the courts treat everyone the same. The most innocent and the guiltiest get the same treatment. The fact that Jackson was most likely guilty is of no concern. He gets the same trial everyone else gets.
That probably pisses you off. And it always will. Right up to the moment you are standing in the twilight zone of a criminal courtroom wondering who the hell all these people are and how you are going to get out of there. For most people, rights only matter when they are personal. And when you need them, hope the rest of us were ignoring you when you were trying so hard to give them away on behalf of somebody else.
The Georgia court recognized that the United States Supreme Court has been very clear about how a courtroom gets closed during a criminal trial. Strong evidence is required that the closure is absolutely the only way to protect whatever right the State is trying to protect (Hint: it’s not one of yours). In this case, nobody paid much attention to why the courtroom needed to be closed. They just closed it.
The Georgia Court of Appeals said no. But it deserves credit for not just saying it, but meaning it. It could have easily remanded the case with a wink and a nod. “Hey just have a new hearing, and promise you won’t do it again.” All would have been forgiven. But instead, it reversed the defendant’s conviction. Now there has to be a new trial. A public one.
This is serious punishment, because the State now has to explain it. Its overzealousness means the whole trial has to be redone. That doesn’t sound very protective of the victim. The problem with always getting your way means you never suffer consequences.
The only way to insure the justice system is actually doing its job is the scrutiny of the society it is supposed to protect. Closed courtrooms means nobody is watching. Except now at least one State’s prosecutors know someone is watching.