IT WILL take a while to figure out all the implications of the Supreme Court's decision yesterday barring secrecy in most criminal trials. There was no majority opinion. Seven justices got to the same place by way of three, perhaps four, different routes. So for the moment we will just note with great satisfaction that the court has put a stop to the growing tendency of trial judges to do their work in secret.
In this admittedly fragmented way, the court has backed off the position it took just a year ago. It is true, as the justices pointed out yesterday, that they then gave their explicit approval only to secret pretrial proceedings and did even that in the context only of the Sixth, not the First, Amendment. But the effect of the court's work then was so far-reaching that it will not be surprising if many judges and commentators regard yesterday's decision as a major retreat.
The court has now held that some members of the public and the press must be admitted to observe criminal trials in all but the most extreme situations. What those extreme situations are remains undefined, although there are hints they could include such things as testimony about national security secrets or by young victims of sexual abuse. The court also seems prepared to tolerate more secrecy in pretrial proceedings, although the details of that, too, remain for later determination. p
This should be enough, however, to curb the inclination of trial judges to close their courtroom doors at the first hint that a secret session might be more convenient to someone. Those judges will now, at least, have to weigh seriously the supposed need for secrecy against the right of the public to know what goes on inside the courtroom.