Security plans for California courts must include public trial safeguards, Council says

California Superior Court judges have been told to adopt security procedures that assure that courtrooms will not be closed to the press and public. The directive from the California Judicial Council responds to an incident last summer in which reporters and the public were barred from a Yolo County court hearing in a case involving the murder of a police officer. At the time, the Yolo County judge, while not defending the closure, said the court had no authority over security procedures. The new directive is intended to clarify courts’ authority in this area.

San Francisco Chronicle
By Bob Egelko
Saturday, October 25, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — The California Judicial Council, responding to an incident in which reporters and the public were barred from a court hearing in a murder case, told the state’s judges Friday to include public access in their security plans.

State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, proposed the access requirement after Yolo County sheriff’s deputies closed a Woodland courtroom June 18 for the arraignment of Marco Topete, charged with murdering Deputy Jose Diaz. The deputies, acting without a judge’s order, allowed only Diaz’s family and law enforcement officers to attend.

Sheriff Ed Prieto later called the lockout a mistake by his officers, and other hearings in the case have been open to the public. But Romero, chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said in a letter to the Judicial Council that news reports indicated the county’s courtrooms have been closed at other times in the past.

“Open court proceedings are a cornerstone of our system of justice,” Romero wrote. “Openness assures the public that justice is administered fairly and guards against prosecutorial bias and perjury.”

Both the U.S. and California supreme courts have said the public has a constitutional right to attend most court hearings. California closes courts in juvenile cases and some family law proceedings. It also requires a judge to hold a public hearing before closing proceedings for any other reason, such as to protect trade secrets or a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The Yolo County incident illustrated the need to train officers who guard courthouses in the public’s right of access, said Tom Newton, a lawyer for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Romero’s proposal requires that counties spell out in court security plans how officers will be trained in access issues and maintain contact with lawyers, the news media and others interested in open courtrooms. It also says counties must make sure that security measures protect defendants’ right to an open trial.

The Judicial Council, policy-making body for California’s courts, adopted the plan unanimously at a meeting in San Francisco.

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