Transparency of Courts is the Key to Justice ”Albuquerque Journal
Transparency issues often focus on elected bodies and whether they comply with the law governing public meetings or executive agencies and whether they comply with laws such as the NM Public Documents Inspection Act.
Important questions, of course. But an open and publicly accessible justice system is just as important, or perhaps more important, considering its role in a functioning democracy. It is the courts, after all, that arbitrate disputes over access issues involving other branches of government. It is the courts and the jury system that resolve civil disputes and ultimately decide whether criminal behavior justifies deprivation of liberty.
New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil shared his thoughts on this: “New Mexico courts recognize the critical importance of allowing the public to see and hear for themselves how our court system resolves legal disputes fairly and impartially. Without this transparency and access, we risk an erosion of public confidence in the rule of law and of confidence in our judicial arm independent of government. Our democracy depends on maintaining the trust and confidence of the public. “
Given the openness of NM’s court system, which as early as the 1980s had the foresight to allow photography and television of court proceedings, it would be easy to take for granted that the court system has always functioned this way. . And that would be wrong.
The “star chamber” is still part of our current lexicon and pejoratively refers to any secret or closed meeting of a judicial or executive body. Rooted in English history, the Star Chamber was well intentioned but came to abuse its powers, using torture to obtain confessions and handing down sentences including whipping, pillory, jail and mutilation, according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia. Jurors were sometimes punished for rendering verdicts against the Crown, and King Charles I used the Star Chamber to crush opposition to his policies.
It is not out of place to imagine that some politicians, if they let them run free, would find this tool useful.
The Star Chamber was abolished by Parliament in 1641, and historically many court proceedings in this country were open. But it wasn’t until 1980, in a case called Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment generally prohibits closing criminal proceedings to the public. The underlying case was a high-profile murder prosecution, and the court’s majority opinion correctly noted that secrecy … “limits the stock of information that members of the public can draw upon.”
The public’s right to be present is not absolute, but in order to close a criminal case courts must exhaust all reasonable alternatives and draw specific conclusions as to why closure is necessary. We have just seen how the justice system works with Derek Chauvin’s prosecution in Minneapolis. Imagine how damaging it would have been to the system if it had been done in secret. The Supreme Court of the United States would be well advised to adopt the same procedures in the federal system for authorizing photography and broadcasting.
This guest column is part of the FOG Transparency: Key to Democracy project. Accountability ensures that government is held accountable to citizens; transparency gives the public the right to access government information and requires that decisions and actions taken by government are open to public scrutiny and held in the light.