Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Courtroom closure during voir dire gets defendant a new trial

This case tells us a few things: first, that a seemingly inconsequential technicality may entitle a convicted felon to a new trial under the Constitution. And second, lawyers really ought to keep up with case law developments.

The case is United States Gupta, decided on November 8. During jury selection, the defendant's brother and his companion were asked to leave the courtroom because there was no room for them in light of the large jury pool and also to ensure that potential jurors did not hear anything about the case. Defendant's lawyer had no idea this was even happening; he was too busy conducting jury selection. After defendant was convicted, he told his lawyer about the expulsion of his brother and companion. Meanwhile, the case was on appeal to the Second Circuit. But in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that addressed when the public may be excluded from jury selection, counsel told the Court of Appeals about the expulsion for the first time and the case was remanded to the district court for factfinding on this issue. That recent Supreme Court decision helped defendant here.

Back up on appeal, the Court of Appeals vacates the conviction. The courtroom closure was unjustified under Supreme Court precedent. The government even concedes this in its appellate brief. But the government says this was a trivial courtroom closure, you know, no harm no foul. The Court of Appeals (Parker, Walker and Hall) disagrees, reasoning:

Whatever the outer boundaries of our “triviality standard” may be (and we see no reason to define these boundaries in the present context), a trial court’s intentional, unjustified closure of a courtroom during the entirety of voir dire cannot be deemed “trivial.”

Much of the Government’s argument rests on its observation that the voir dire proceedings here failed to produce any contentious issues. We do not necessarily disagree. Most voir dire proceedings are uncontroversial. But the public trial right is not implicated solely in discordant situations. Rather, “the value of openness” that a public trial guarantees “lies in the fact that people not actually attending trials can have confidence that standards of fairness are being observed; the sure knowledge that anyone is free to attend gives assurance that established procedures are being followed and that deviations will become known.” Thus, the regularity of the proceedings is an important impression with which the courts should leave observers. While a public presence will more likely bring to light any errors that do occur, it is the openness of the proceeding itself, regardless of what actually transpires, that imparts “the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system” as a whole.

1 comment:

PDB said...

I've been reading this blog for several months now and I just would like to say thank you for maintaining it. I'm a student in a law school in the Seventh Circuit and plan on practicing in Chicago after graduation (having already worked at a couple of civil rights-related firms there), and it is fascinating to see how things are decided elsewhere. Keep up the good work!