Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia

PETITIONER: Richmond Newspapers Inc.
LOCATION: Circuit Court of Hanover County

DOCKET NO.: 79-243
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Virginia

CITATION: 448 US 555 (1980)
ARGUED: Feb 19, 1980
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1980

J. Marshall Coleman - on behalf of Virginia, et al
Laurence H. Tribe - Argued the cause for the appellants
Marshall Coleman - Argued the cause for the appellees

Facts of the case

After a series of mistrials in a murder case in the state of Virginia, a trial judge closed the trial to the public and the media. Defense counsel brought the closure motion; the prosecution did not object. Two reporters of Richmond Newspapers, Inc. challenged the judge's action.


Did the closure of the trial to the press and public violate the First Amendment or the Sixth Amendment?

Media for Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 19, 1980 in Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Richmond Newspapers, Incorporated, against Virginia.

Mr. Tribe, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Laurence H. Tribe:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

This is an appeal by the Richmond newspapers, and two of its reporters, who were expelled, along with all other members of the public, from an entire murder trial in September of 1978.

It was the fourth time that the defendant had been brought to trial for the murder of a local hotel manager.

And his case had already been extensively described in the local press.

On motion of defense counsel, without objections by the prosecutor, the trial judge closed the entire trial on the authority of a Virginia statute which gives trial courts discretion to treat all observers as, and I quote the language of the statute, persons whose presence would impair the conduct of a fair trial.

At the end of a two-day secret trial, the trial judge excused the jury, declared the defendant not guilty of murder, and set him free.

On petitions for appeal -- mandamus and prohibition -- appellants sought to prevent their recurring exclusion from complete criminal trials by urging the Supreme Court of Virginia to hold such closure unconstitutional.

The State, in a memorandum and a brief, defended the closure on the express authority of the Virginia statute that had been invoked by the trial judge.

And the Virginia Supreme Court summarily upheld the closure, citing only this Court's one-week-old decision in Gannett.

Although the Virginia statute and the Attorney General of Virginia speak in terms of fair trial in this case, there was no specific risk of unfairness whatever, either demonstrated or found below.

The problems that were noted, either by defense counsel or by the trial court, were three types.

First, there were suggestions, which appellants submit are incompatible with the concept of public trial.

For example, the trial judge's comment that the courtroom layout might make observers distracting since jurors could see them a courtroom which for some two and one-half centuries had been used for open criminal trials.

Second, there were suggested difficulties that closing the trial simply could not have solved.

I have in mind here defense counsel's concern that one or more of the prior trials had in some way been spoiled by inadmissible evidence, or by jury exposure to pretrial publicity.

Warren E. Burger:

Was this trial held in the same courtroom as the prior trials?

Laurence H. Tribe:

It was, Mr. Chief Justice.

It was held under the same judge as the second and third trials, but a different judge than the one who presided over the first.

It was only the first trial that went to judgment, a judgment of conviction that was ultimately reversed.

William H. Rehnquist:

Where is Hanover County?

Laurence H. Tribe:

It's some miles from Richmond, and it's a rural county.

One of the points, indeed, made by the Attorney General is that because it's a small community problems of prejudicial publicity might be greater.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, some -- that's like, most places are some miles --

Laurence H. Tribe:

I'm afraid I have not been in Hanover County, Mr. Justice.

Finally, there were suggestions of problems that could obviously have been solved by devices that were far less restrictive than closure.

Defense counsel expressed particular fear that jurors might receive misleading or prejudicial information of some kind between trial sessions.

There was no suggestion that jurors could not possibly be insulated during a trial, especially of this brief duration, from persons who might give them prejudicial or misleading information.

Now, if this record justifies the closure of an entire murder trial, then frankly, it's rather hard to imagine one that would not.