Georgia defense lawyers and a national journalists’ group are backing a convicted drug defendant who has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a Georgia high court decision upholding the closure of jury selection to the public, reports the Fulton County (Ga.) Daily Report. Saying that courts across the U.S. have “chipped away” at the public’s right to observe the selection of jurors in criminal trials, despite a string of U.S. Supreme Court rulings affirming that right, Georgia’s defense lawyers have filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to hear the appeal of Eric Presley, who was convicted in DeKalb County in 2006.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief in support of Presley. The committee argues that the Presley case concerns an issue “critical to the media specifically and the public in general: whether a court may exclude the public from voir dire for the sake of administrative convenience, without considering any alternatives and without identifying a specific overriding interest in secrecy that overcomes the presumption of public access to the courts.” The Supreme Court of Georgia, in a 5-2 ruling, held that a judge did not err when, during jury voir dire, she removed spectators — including members of the victim’s family — from her courtroom and the floor on which her courtroom was located. Writing for the majority, Justice P. Harris Hines said the judge “certainly had an overriding interest in ensuring that potential jurors heard no inherently prejudicial remarks from observers during voir dire,” adding that “[T]he court made it clear that the exclusion of observers was only for the duration of jury voir dire.” Then-Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote in a dissent, joined by now-Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein, “A room that is so small that it cannot accommodate the public is a room that is too small to accommodate a constitutional criminal trial.”