On January 19, the Supreme Court issued a 7-2 per curiam decision in Presley v. Georgia, No. 09-5270, holding that trial courts must consider alternatives to closing courtrooms during trial, even if no one else suggests what the alternatives should be, because the "public has a right to be present whether or not any party has asserted the right" and "[t]rial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials."
Eric Presley was convicted of a cocaine-trafficking offense after a jury trial in the Superior Court of DeKalb County, Georgia. Just before the prospective jurors entered the courtroom for questioning and selection, the trial judge noticed a single courtroom observer and instructed the observer that he must leave the courtroom. The judge was advised that the observer was a family member of the defendant, and defendant's counsel objected to the exclusion of the public from the courtroom. The court nevertheless required the observer to leave the courtroom, explaining that there wasn't room for the public to sit in the audience along with the potential jurors.
After his conviction, Presley moved for a new trial on the basis of the public's exclusion from the voir dire of prospective jurors. He offered evidence that there was ample space in the courtroom for the public and the venire, but the trial court denied the motion for new trial. The Court of Appeals of Georgia and the Supreme Court of Georgia both affirmed the ruling. The latter court held that Presley was obligated to present the trial court with alternatives to closing the courtroom and, because he failed to do so, the trial court did not abuse its discretion.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court first noted that the public trial right is founded in both the Sixth and First Amendments, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. In Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, the Court had held that the voir dire of prospective jurors must be open to the public under the First Amendment. In Waller v. Georgia, the Court had held that pretrial suppression hearings must be open to the public under the Sixth Amendment, and noted "there can be little doubt that the explicit Sixth Amendment right of the accused is no less protective of a public trial than the implicit First Amendment right of the press and public."
In light of these prior rulings, the Court concluded that the law was sufficiently well settled that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extends to voir dire to permit the Court to proceed by summary disposition. It held that the trial court ignored Supreme Court precedent when it did not consider any alternatives to closing the courtroom. It identified as possible alternatives: reserving one or more rows for the public, dividing the jury venire panel to reduce courtroom congestion, and instructing prospective jurors not to engage or interact with audience members. Nothing in the record showed that the trial court could not have accommodated the public during the jury voir dire at Presley's trial.
The Court acknowledged that the right to a public trial is not absolute and may be outweighed by factors such as the right to a fair trial or the government's interest in protecting sensitive information. The exceptions, however, should be rare and should be based on a careful balancing of interests. Although it did not rule on the separate issue of whether the circumstances of this case involved any overriding interest likely to be prejudiced unless the courtroom was closed during voir dire, it expressed doubt that "broad concerns" such as the "generic risk of jurors overhearing prejudicial remarks" would ever suffice in the absence of a specific threat or incident.
The Court's per curiam opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined.