Coy v. Iowa

LOCATION: Iowa District Court for Clinton County

DOCKET NO.: 86-6757
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Iowa Supreme Court

CITATION: 487 US 1012 (1988)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1988
DECIDED: Jun 29, 1988

Gorden E. Allen - Deputy Attorney General of Iowa, argued the cause for appellee
Paul Papak - by appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the appellant

Facts of the case

John Coy was tried in an Iowa court for sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls. When the girls were testifying against Coy, the court placed a large screen in front of him so that the girls would not have to see him. The jury proceeded to convict him. Coy argued that Iowa Code 910A, which provides for the use of a screen in child sexual abuse cases, violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers face-to-face. He also claimed that the code violated his right to due process, since having a screen placed between him and the girls made him appear guilty before he was properly tried. The trial court dismissed these claims and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed.


Does a defendant have the right to confront his alleged victims "face-to-face" under the Sixth Amendment if they testify against him before a jury?

Media for Coy v. Iowa

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 1988 in Coy v. Iowa

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 29, 1988 in Coy v. Iowa

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 86-6757 will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case, Coy versus Iowa that comes to us on appeal from the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The appellant was convicted after a jury trial of two counts of lascivious acts with a child.

At trial, the State made a motion pursuant to an Iowa statute to place a screen in the courtroom during the testimony of the two complaining witnesses, both of whom were 13-year-old girls.

The trial court allowed the use of the screen, which was positioned between the appellant and the two witnesses, so as to permit appellant to see the witnesses but blocked him from their view.

Appellant argued that the screen violated the Sixth Amendment's guaranty of a face to face confrontation and violated due process.

The Iowa Supreme Court rejected these arguments.

We reversed on Confrontation Clause grounds.

The right to face-to-face confrontation has ancient roots although our opinions have discussed it less frequently than other more complicated aspects of the Confrontation Clause, such as the admissibility of out-of-courts statements.

But both ancient and modern sources suggest that a face-to-face encounter as the words of the clause suggest is an important element of a fair trial which serves the goal of assuring the integrity of the fact finding process.

Today, we reaffirmed the core meaning of the Confrontation Clause.

It is difficult to imagine a more obvious or damaging violation of the confrontation right than the screen in this case, which was specifically designed to prevent the witnesses from seeing the appellant.

We do not decide whether exceptions to the right exist since any exception would require more than the legislatively imposed presumption of trauma that was the sole justification for use of the screen here.

There was no individualized finding that these witnesses needed special protection.

We believe that violations of the confrontation right may be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and rather than decide whether the error here was harmless, we leave that issue for the court below.

Justice O'Connor, who joins the opinion, has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice White has joined.

Justice Blackmun has filed a dissent in which Chief Justice Rehnquist has joined. Justice Kennedy took no part.