The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to a public trial and is aimed at creating transparency, fairness, and accountability.
The public trial right “is for the benefit of the accused; that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned and that the presence of interested spectators may keep his triers keenly alive to a sense of their responsibility and to the importance of their functions . . . .”
The public trial right, like the speedy trial right, was designed to protect the accused, but it also serves a public function. Public trials ensure that there's an extra layer of accountability as the public can determine whether government officials properly carry out their functions in a way that is not shrouded in secrecy.
In Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984), the Supreme Court laid out a four-part test to determine whether court closures are appropriate. According to the test, trial courts are to consider:
 the party seeking to close the [proceeding] must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,  the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest,  the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and  it must make findings adequate to support the closure.
This approach mirrors the "strict scrutiny" analysis often seen in constitutional challenges to laws in which the government must advance a "compelling state interest" in order for it to be a constitutionally valid act. Additionally, in instances in which a court does grant closure, Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209 (2010) requires that, "the particular interest, and threat to that interest, must be articulated along with the findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.”
The Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and the public's First Amendment right to access criminal proceedings have the common principle that courts should be open in order to ensure fairness. Nevertheless, there are instances in which courts have allowed some court proceedings to occur despite being fully or partially closed.
- Closure to prevent witness intimidation.
- Closure to prevent the emotional disturbance of a witness.
- Closure due to age and intellectual capacity of a witness.
Public Trial Right Applies to:
- Suppression Hearings
- Voir Dire
- Sentencing (see, e.g., United States v. Thompson, 713 F.3d 388 (8th Cir. 2013)).
REMEDY FOR VIOLATION
In Waller, the Court found that a public trial right violation a “structural error, i.e., an error entitling the defendant to automatic reversal without any inquiry into prejudice.” Id. at 59. In other words, once defendants demonstrate the violation, they are automatically entitled to relief.
If you are interested in obtaining Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) related to strengthening Sixth Amendment protections in your jurisdiction, click the link below.
|APPLY FOR TTA|
Cross-Examination Trial Pack
NACDL’s new Cross-Examination Trial Pack includes three of our best-selling Cross-Examination resources: “Damage Control: Situational Cross-Examination Techniques Trial Guide”, "Ultimate Cross 2.0: Audio Recordings & Written Materials" and "Sample Cross-Examination Questions."
This masterful collection of cross-examination resources provide countless tips, techniques and strategies for a variety of criminal case-specific scenarios. Learn to cross-examine a variety of trial witnesses!
Death Investigation: Forensic Pathology in the Courtroom and Cause & Manner of Death (2022)
This unique program provides criminal defense lawyers with an accurate and clear overview of forensic pathology and the countless factors to consider in a death investigation and will methodically explain what happens during an autopsy to determine cause and manner of death.
You'll uncover the different types of medicolegal death investigations, what to request from your MDI expert, quality benchmarks for accreditation and certification, guidelines and standards, common terminology and frequently asked questions.
The Psychology of Persuasion & Storytelling for Criminal Defense Lawyers
This Trial Resource Guide is a masterful collection of practical tips, techniques and strategies focused solely on using the arts and sciences of persuasion to improve your storytelling skills at trial.
You'll learn how to master the ability to communicate with juries, deliver powerful openings and closings, perform convincing cross-examinations, use effective courtroom choreography and non-verbal communication, identify and develop the optimal theme and theory for your case, and offer compelling arguments during mitigation and sentencing.
Zealous Advocacy in Sexual Assault & Child Victims Cases (2022)
Defending charges of sexual assault and child abuse can be daunting — but with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be.
Every year, NACDL identifies the hottest topics and most pressing issues when defending these cases, and brings-in nationally-renowned lawyers and experts to help you prepare for battle. This year’s 13th Annual Defending Sex Cases training program is our best yet; packed with topics and speakers you won’t want to miss!