By: Mark Fitzgerald
Locke vs. Eastwood case leads to landmark decision
In a ruling with implications far beyond its state boundaries, California’s Supreme Court declared unanimously that the press and public have a constitutional right to attend civil trials.
“The First Amendment right of access applies to civil proceedings as well as to criminal proceedings,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in the 68-page decision released July 17. “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 public’s access to criminal trials has been repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, but this is believed to be the first time a state supreme court has ruled that civil trials must also be open. First Amendment attorneys say the unusually detailed decision ? which includes step-by-step procedures judges must use in determining whether part of a civil trial can be closed ? is likely to be followed by courts outside of California.
“I don’t see how any other state could decide the issue if it were squarely faced,” says Neil Shapiro, a San Francisco media lawyer. The decision, he adds, was not only based primarily on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment rather than California state law, it also “lays out every possible objection and tells why each does apply.”
The case at issue was the highly publicized lawsuit that actress and director Sondra Locke brought against her former live-in companion, actor Clint Eastwood. The trial court judge, saying he feared the jury would be tainted by reports of inadmissible evidence, barred the public and reporters from the courtroom any time the jury was not present.
So thorough was the banishment that reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the local NBC station could not attend the hearing where their companies’ lawyers argued for greater access.
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