Right to a Public Trial

The Sixth Amendment provides that a person accused of a crime “shall enjoy a public trial.” This right is grounded in the belief that judges and prosecutors will carry out their duties more responsibly in open court than they might in secret proceedings as well as the notion that a public trial encourages witnesses to come forward and discourages perjury. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46 (1984).

The right to open trial proceedings is not absolute; it operates as a strong presumption rather than a guarantee. The presumption may be overcome in rare cases by other compelling rights and interests, such as the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the government’s interest in limiting the disclosure of sensitive information, and the need to protect the personal dignity of a testifying and vulnerable witness. See id. at 45; Bell v. Jarvis, 236 F.3d 149, 167-68 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc).

Before a judge may close criminal trial proceedings to the public, (1) the party seeking to close the courtroom must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced by open proceedings; (2) the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding; and (3) the trial court must make findings that are adequate to support the closure. Waller, 467 U.S. at 48. Finally, even if justified, (4) the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect the identified interest. Id. This four-part inquiry is referred to as the Waller test.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals in the recent case of State v. Miller, COA22-561 ___ N.C. App. ___ (Feb. 21, 2023) considered whether a trial court’s order closing the courtroom satisfied the Waller test and thus the Sixth Amendment.

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