Given that trials are presumed to be open, does the public have a First Amendment right to hear the discussions among the judge, the lawyers and the parties in sidebar conferences or in the judge’s chambers?
Assuming that sidebar conferences and meetings in chambers are not being used to circumvent hearings that should be held in open court, the right of access does not extend to such discussions. Courts that have considered this issue have denied access on the grounds that there is no historical tradition of access to these portions of a trial. These discussions, however, almost always are recorded by the court reporter, and many courts, if asked, will release transcripts of the discussions after the trial.
Are there dangers in using anonymous juries?
Anonymous juries were first used in the late 1970s and the early 1980s in trials of drug kingpins and other defendants who posed a special danger to jurors. In those cases and in cases in which there is a high risk of jury tampering, anonymous juries are necessary to protect both jurors and the integrity of the judicial system. Since the mid-1990s, however, judges often have empaneled anonymous juries in cases, including civil cases, in which the only “risk” to jurors is the possibility of being approached for press interviews after the case. Anonymous juries should not be used so lightly, however, particularly because being anonymous almost always suggests to jurors that the defendant is dangerous. An anonymous jury is also often beyond scrutiny, even by the parties in the case. One of the jurors in the anonymous jury seated to hear one of mobster John Gotti’s trials, for example, was a man with ties to organized crime. Many believe this juror contacted Gotti’s attorneys, arranged for a bribe and ensured Gotti’s acquittal. Because of the jurors’ anonymity, neither the prosecutors nor the news media were aware of this juror’s background until after the trial.