People rarely stop to consider why they have faith in our judicial system. Why do we abide by its decisions even when we might disagree with them?
Our jury system would be part of any answer. So would the fact that we all have a right to an attorney, a right to remain silent, a right to confront our accusers.
But those rights would not be guaranteed without another critical part of our judicial system: the proceedings, with rare exceptions, take place in the public sphere. The rows of seats in each courtroom offer more than a place to sit and watch the drama. They ensure that decisions of guilt or innocence are made in the open, where all can see that justice has been carried out. It’s what separates our Democracy from authoritarian regimes.
Twice in recent months, defense attorneys in Casper have sought to close criminal proceedings in high-profile cases. The first involved a former doctor accused of sexually assaulting patients. The second concerned a high-profile businessman that will soon stand trial for allegedly raping a woman half his age.
Both times, the attorneys’ efforts were rebuffed by two judges who felt the need for transparency outweighed other concerns.
We applaud those decisions. We don’t advocate for guilt or innocence in either case; that is for jurors to decide after carefully considering the evidence. Rather, we applaud decisions that favor transparency and openness in our government.
We recognize there are valid reasons for a lawyer to seek a closed courtroom. The evidence might be embarrassing for a client. Pre-trial coverage by the news media might make it harder to find jurors who are unfamiliar with the case.
But those concerns almost always pale in comparison to the benefit of an open hearing. Sunshine brings with it legitimacy. A sealed courtroom breeds only skepticism and allows rumors to take root in the dark.
It’s important to note that the judges’ decisions to keep open the court proceedings come amid a growing trend of public officials who would prefer to do their jobs without public scrutiny. They’d rather make their decisions without the debate and criticism that comes with open government.
But that trend only feeds mistrust in our institutions. It is better to always err on the side of openness, even with all of its imperfections.