Which is more important: the first or sixth amendment?
Cal Poly was given a look into the minds of four second district Court of Appeals justices in a panel discussion that examined the judge’s decision in the Michael Jackson case judge’s decision to seal pretrial documents. The discussion presented contrasting views of the legal system and the press.
Justices Arthur Gilbert, Paul Coffee, Steven Perren and Kenneth Yegan defended their decision to uphold the trial court’s decision to seal all grand jury transcripts, search warrants and other records. On the side of the press and the public’s right to know was journalism professor and KSBY reporter John Soares, who, as a reporter and producer during the Jackson trial, was affected by the sealing of important pretrial documents.
It’s probably the “most publicized case in the history of the world,” Gilbert said. However, the justices concurred with Judge Rodney Melville’s decision to seal the documents not only because of Jackson’s celebrity status but also due to privacy issues, they said.
Since child molestation was a main issue during the grand jury testimony, they thought it should stay private. There was consideration to redact (editing it to replace names with letters, etc. to protect victims’ identities) the transcript instead of completely sealing it, but it made the transcripts virtually unreadable.
The look into the inner workings of the judicial system revealed constant conflict among justices to balance interests. They wanted to balance having a fair trial with the public’s right to know and minors’ rights.
“There were five groups of people with a stake in the Michael Jackson trial,” Yegan said. He listed the press, defendant, people of California (represented by the district attorney), the victims and public as stakeholders the court had to consider in its decision to uphold the sealing of documents.
While their decision wasn’t popular with the press, they insist they have a presumption of openness in their proceedings and none of them have personally considered issuing a gag order (during which no one involved with the case can talk to the press).
On the other side, Soares said “balancing interests” is code for “there is no law,” and explained that efforts by the judicial system to limit press coverage of a trial hurts both the press and the public.
The viewpoints toward the sealing of documents led the way into a deeper debate about the relationship between the judicial system and the press, including gag orders, qualified privilege and shield laws.
The justices attributed full awareness of the press’ impact in a courtroom to the OJ Simpson trial “circus,” which Gilbert said demeaned the whole legal process and tarnished the reputation of the judicial system.
The men also discussed issues of press coverage and courts in the recent California gay marriage case, the Texas polygamist sect case and the Rodney King case, in which the court demanded information from the press with qualified privilege.