The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

Sixth Amendment

What does it mean for a trial to be public?

A public trial means that generally a criminal defendant cannot be tried in a secret court proceeding, such as the Star Chamber in England in the sixteenth century. The rationale is that a public trial makes it less likely that a gross injustice will be perpetrated. The issue surfaces when a judge closes a courtroom and denies the press or others access to the courtroom.

Sometimes criminal defendants wish to deny the press access to their cases. Other times both parties agree that the case should be tried in private. The Sixth Amendment requires that the judge make specific findings as to why a case should be closed before engaging in such drastic measures. In Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court explained the importance of conducting trials in open view: “People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing. When a criminal trial is conducted in the open, there is at least an opportunity both for understanding the system in general and its workings in a particular case.”


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