Minnesota Supreme Court: Locked Courtroom Didn’t Violate Right to Public Trial

23 Jul

I apologize for the lateness of this post.

Back on July 3, the Minnesota Supreme Court held, among other things, that locking the courtroom doors during jury instructions didn’t violate the accused’s  right to a public trial.

The appeal arose from the case of Jerrell Brown, who was convicted in 2010 of aiding and abetting first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang and sentenced to life in prison. The Supreme Court relayed the courtroom closure, instigated by the now-retired Hennepin County Judge Warren R. Sagstuen, as follows:


“Following closing arguments but before giving jury instructions, the trial court ordered that the courtroom door be locked for the duration of jury instructions. In explaining the situation, the judge stated on the record:

‘For the benefit of those in the back. I am about to begin giving jury instructions. While that is going on the courtroom is going to be locked and people are not going to be allowed to go in and out.
So, if anybody has to leave, now would be the time. You are welcome to s[t]ay. But I just want to make sure that everybody knows that the courtroom is going to be locked. We are all good? Deputy?’

Once the courtroom door was locked, no spectators were let in or out during the jury instructions, but no spectators who were in the courtroom at the time jury instructions began were forced to leave. At the close of the instructions, the trial court handed out copies of the jury instructions and sent the jury to deliberate.”


In his majority opinion, Page wrote that “Both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6, of the Minnesota Constitution provide that ‘the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial,'” but that since the courtroom was never cleared of all spectators, and because the trial remained open to the public and press already in the courtroom, and because “the jury instructions did not comprise a proportionately large portion of the trial proceedings,” the closure was not Constitutionally significant.

Page tempered his opinion by stating that trial courts should utilize court closure “carefully and sparingly.”

In a dissent that was joined by Justice Paul H. Anderson, Justice Helen Meyer disagreed with the majority on the closure, stating that “the trial court’s decision to close and lock the courtroom doors during jury instructions contravened the purposes of the public trial guarantee” and justified greater scrutiny than was undertaken by the majority. Justice Meyer cited United States Supreme Court precedence in stating that “The right to a public trial is not only for the accused, but also the public and the press, and is a fundamental part of Anglo-American jurisprudence.”

The opinion can be found here. MPR’s Bob Collins gives a short recap here.


Monday Morsels

2 Jul

A couple more interesting stories rumbling around Minnesota today:

The Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal linked to a story the Star Tribune ran a few days ago (which I somehow missed, sorry), about so-called trademark bullying involving some Minnesota companies. The story raises interesting issues about the intersection of intellectual property and free speech, as well as the practical costs to small businesses seeking to defend their Constitutional liberties.

Meanwhile, Professor Howard Friedman’s excellent Religion Clause blog published a fantastic summary of the controversy surrounding Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s decision to rename the proposed marriage amendment and the subsequent outrage from the amendment’s proponents.

Court of Appeals Roundup

2 Jul

The Minnesota Court of Appeals issued two unpublished opinions that included some speech related tidbits today.

In In the Matter of the Professional Engineering License Application of Michael P. Opela, Sr., Michael Opela appealed an administrative decision denying his application for state licensure as a professional engineer. As part of his appeal, he requested that the court “seal his application and the record of the administrative proceedings to protect his privacy and reputation.” The Court of Appeals declined to seal the record in the case, citing portions of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and stating that “Case records on appeal are presumed public, absent several enumerated exceptions that are not applicable here.” Score one for public access to court records, albeit at the expense of Mr. Opela.

In  Timothy Jirak v. Philip Eichten, et al., an intra-family estate dispute, the court upheld, among other things, the plaintiff’s claim of defamation per se. The district court awarded the plaintiff $120,000. The bright side, for adamant free speech supporters, would be that the court declined to award  attorneys’ fees or punitive damages. The Court of Appeals cited Minn. Stat. 549.20, which states that punitive damages are permitted “only upon clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”

Britain’s High Court Blocks Extradition of Alleged Minnesota Sex Offender

29 Jun

The British High Court decided that Minnesota’s  Sex Offender Treatment Program threatened Shawn Sullivan’s Human rights stating:

there is a real risk that if extradited the appellant might be subject to an order for civil commitment within Minnesota and that that amounts to a risk that he would suffer a flagrant denial of his rights enshrined in Art. 5.1 (of the European Convention on Human Rights).

Basically, the Court (Do you capitalize British High Courts? I hope so!) stated that civil commitment to prevent possible future criminal conduct is wicked messed up.  As a side note, the opinion writing judge is named Lord Justice Moses, which is now my favorite curse/interjection. Maybe if Tim Pawlenty hadn’t taken away the sex offender’s TVs, the Minnesota taxpayer could pay to indefinitely lock up this guy… Lord Justice Moses, that would be sweet.

Fugitive Senate Candidate Files Libel Suit

28 Jun

The Star Tribune is reporting that fugitive Minneapolis dentist and U.S. Senate candidate Jack Shepard (no, not this dude, this dude) sued the Huffington Post for libel because of a headline that labels him an arsonist.

According to the Strib, the suit was filed in federal court in St. Paul on Monday. Shepard, who is currently running for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, fled the country in 1982 while facing felony arson charges, but was apparently never convicted. He also has apparently never returned from Italy, which will make it difficult for him to press his case. For more background on Shepard, who strikes me as a very interesting person, see here.

Child Porn Convict’s Conditions of Supervised Release Upheld

27 Jun

Yesterday, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (whose decisions become binding law on all federal district courts in Minnesota) upheld an Arkansas judge’s decision that a man convicted of receiving and possessing child pornography could be prohibited from possessing all pornography, from accessing the Internet, and from owning a computer as terms of his supervised release.

The convict, Justin Deatherage, was sentenced to 70 months in prison, followed by ten years of supervised release, one of the conditions of which being that he not “purchase, possess . . . or use any media forms containing pornographic images or sexually oriented materials…” At the sentencing, the judge stated that “We would just like to keep these sex offenders away from pornography.”

Deatherage appealed, arguing that the condition banning pornography, among others, was “a greater deprivation of liberty than necessary.”

In its decision, United States v. Deatherage, the Eighth Circuit stated that while “broad bans on possessing sexually explicit materials … implicate important First Amendment rights,” it ultimately concluded that “between the child pornography offense, Deatherage’s likely abuse of young children, and his sordid affair with [his mistress], the district court did not abuse its discretion by banning possession of all sexually oriented materials during his ten years of supervised release.”

Lakeville Teens Plead Guilty

27 Jun

In an update to a story that the Twin Cities media has gone absolutely crazy over (see, e.g. coverage in Patch, MPR, PiPress, and Strib) it looks like 3 of the 4 Lakeville teens mentioned in this prior post have plead guilty to a gross misdemeanor count of conspiracy to interfere with privacy (Minn. Stat. 609.746), and not the more constitutionally troublesome criminal defamation with which they were apparently also charged. According to the reports, a fourth student’s case has yet to be resolved.