Landmark Supreme Court Ruling Promotes Openness in Courtrooms: 40th Anniversary of Press-Enterprise I Celebrated

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Press-Enterprise I is approaching. The ruling, which affirmed the public’s right to observe jury selection during trials, set a high bar for closing courtrooms during the process. The decision, hailed as a victory for press freedom and public access to courtrooms, requires judges to limit closures and provide justification in case of appeals.

In Press-Enterprise I, attorney Jim Ward represented The Press-Enterprise, a Riverside-based newspaper, before the Supreme Court in 1984. The case centered around the closure of the courtroom during the jury selection for the trial of Albert Greenwood Brown Jr., who was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering a 15-year-old girl. The Press-Enterprise argued for the importance of transparency and the public’s right to witness jury selection.

The ruling holds significant weight today, with lawyers often citing it in cases related to public access to court proceedings. Despite the precedent set by Press-Enterprise I, there are still instances where courts limit public access without sufficient reasoning, according to Jen Nelson, senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Press-Enterprise II, another important case, followed two years after Press-Enterprise I. This case granted the public a First Amendment right to attend pre-trial hearings, further solidifying the importance of transparency in the justice system.

The involvement of The Press-Enterprise in these cases was driven by their commitment to open government and informing their community. Although the newspaper wasn’t as prominent as national dailies like The Washington Post and The New York Times, their dedication to covering criminal trials and advocating for press and public access to courtrooms was commendable.

Retired columnist Dan Bernstein chronicled the history of Press-Enterprise I and II in his book, “Justice in Plain Sight: How a Small-Town Newspaper and Its Unlikely Lawyer Opened America’s Courtrooms.” The book explores the impact of these rulings and how they have been cited in various court cases over the years.

Looking back on these cases, it’s important to recognize the legacy of Press-Enterprise I and II. They highlight the necessity of open courtrooms and the role they play in ensuring justice is served. The cases serve as a reminder that the public’s right to observe judicial proceedings is essential for a fair and transparent legal system.

In conclusion, the 40th anniversary of Press-Enterprise I is a significant milestone that celebrates the victory for courtroom transparency. The ruling established guidelines for closing courtrooms during jury selection and set a precedent for public access to judicial proceedings. Despite progress, challenges remain in ensuring courts provide sufficient reasoning for limiting public access. The legacy of Press-Enterprise I and II serves as a reminder of the importance of transparency and public oversight in the justice system.