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Civil Trials Are Open to Public, State Justices Rule

Law: The Supreme Court decision, the first to affirm access privileges in noncriminal cases, is expected to have impact outside California. It includes guidelines on when privacy is warranted.

July 28, 1999|MARIA L. La GANGA and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN FRANCISCO — In the first decision of its kind in the nation, the California Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the public's right to be present during civil trials and set out guidelines advising judges of the limited circumstances in which such proceedings may be held in private.

While the United States Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that criminal trials must be open to the public and the media, no high court had ever affirmed a similar constitutional right in civil proceedings.

In the unanimous decision Tuesday, Chief Justice Ronald George wrote that "the public has an interest, in all civil cases, in observing and assessing the performance of its public judicial system, and that interest strongly supports a general right of access in ordinary civil cases."

The decision "will really be followed not only in California, but throughout the country," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at USC. "That's why it's such an important precedent."

J. Clark Kelso, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, noted that American media outlets have been seeking such a decision for many years. "The general tenor of this opinion is government has to be open and accessible to people," Kelso said.

Tuesday's ruling arose from a case involving a contractual dispute between actor Clint Eastwood and his former companion, actress Sondra Locke. During the 1996 civil trial, which came in the wake of the O.J. Simpson murder prosecution, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David M. Schacter barred the public and the news media from all court proceedings that did not take place before a jury.

Schacter reasoned that simply telling jurors to stay away from news reports and conversations about the Eastwood trial was not enough to protect them from information that would probably end up, for example, screaming from the pages of tabloid newspapers at grocery store checkout counters.

Several media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and KNBC-TV, challenged the order and won at the Court of Appeal. The county then appealed to the state high court, arguing that judges should have the discretion to exclude the public at certain times to ensure a fair and impartial trial.

Assistant Los Angeles County Counsel Frederick R. Bennett said Tuesday that the ruling was clear-cut and should prove helpful in the future.

"The chief justice and the unanimous court really went to great lengths to deal with all of the issues raised," he said, "and attempted, as we asked them to do, to try to create a practical solution for balancing these two important issues: the press's understandable desire to get the news quickly and the rights of litigants to have a fair trial."

"It really is a groundbreaking decision," said Kelli L. Sager, who represented The Times and California Community News during the appeals. "It debunks a lot of arguments we often hear about why court proceedings should be closed. . . . It's not enough to say that the jury might be tainted by something. They've set out very clear rules that courts will have to follow."

Under the decision, a trial court could still hear some matters, such as sidebar conferences, in private. As a practical matter, judges sometimes do so even in criminal cases, where the public's right to attend has long been the law.

But to now close a civil case, the court said, the trial judge must follow a careful procedure: First, the judge must provide public notice that a closure is under consideration. Second, before "substantive" proceedings are closed or transcripts are sealed, the court must hold a hearing and find that there is an overriding interest supporting closure, that the closure is as narrowly focused as possible and that there are no less restrictive means of protecting the proceedings.

The high court ruled that in the Eastwood case, Schacter did not meet such standards and, furthermore, the court record did not establish that there was a compelling need to close the proceedings.

In a nasty legal battle stemming from a palimony suit, Locke sued Eastwood charging that he used his clout with Warner Bros. to hurt her chances at a directing career after their messy split-up in 1989.

Trial Judge Limited Public, Press Access

The contract dispute went to trial in September 1996. Soon after the jury was sworn in, Schacter announced that "all proceedings in the case that are held outside the presence of the jury will be closed to the public and the press." Then he began a series of private hearings in the courtroom over pivotal--but not normally private--issues such as evidence, jury instructions and the scope of upcoming testimony.

KNBC filed an emergency order to open up the hearings to the public. Even the hearing on that request was closed. During the hearing, KNBC's attorney argued that access to court proceedings is "not a new topic."

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