During the Spring of 2021, a defendant whose criminal trial was repeatedly delayed on account of the pandemic was ultimately tried behind closed doors.

The trial court decided to exclude the public from the trial on account of (i) the covid-related physical distancing requirements in force at that time; and (ii) the judge’s inability to use any videoconferencing system to livestream the trial (the judge expressly said that he did not have that capability and therefore would not do so unless the State wanted to provide somebody to do that). More precisely, the Court considered that while it could make room for a few people and comply with the covid social distancing protocols, this option would have meant that anyone allowed in the courtroom would have been too close to jurors. Accordingly, it dismissed defendant’s objection to excluding members of the public from trial.

Defendant, who was convicted by the first-instance court, filed an appeal challenging, inter alia, the district court’s exclusion of all members of the public, including his family, from his trial. He alleged that this had resulted in a flagrant breach of his constitutional right to a public trial.

By judgment of 22 December 2022, the Supreme Court of Iowa upheld defendant’s appeal. The Court recalled that the right to a public trial may be limited only in presence of an overriding interest; furthermore, such limitations must be narrowly tailored to serve that overriding interest. In other words, “when considering the necessary extent of a closure, the balance of interests must be struck with special care”, the Court said. That said, the Court found, on the one hand, that the pandemic (and the ensuing need to maintaining covid safety protocols) is an overriding interest that supports the trial court’s decision to limit the public’s access to defendant’s trial, on the other, that the trial court had not adequately tailored the measures taken to safeguard that interest. Namely, according to the Court the complete closure of the trial was far more extensive than necessary. First, as the trial court itself recognized, additional people could fit inside the courtroom while still maintaining the covid protocols (the fact that the presence of the public might have made jurors uncomfortable could not deprive defendant of his constitutional right); second, the district court could have resorted to a less restrictive alternative to serve the asserted overriding interest. “If the district court believed it was truly necessary to exclude all spectators from attending in person to protect against COVID, it would have been reasonable for the district court to livestream the trial as an alternative to completely closing the courtroom, and it was therefore unreasonable not to do so. […] While livestreaming would have posed additional work on the court, it was work that—under the circumstances—was required to ensure constitutional compliance”, the appellate court said. Accordingly, it reversed the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.

Reference: State v. Brimmer, Supreme Court of Iowa, 22 December 2022.

Full text of the decision available at en