On July 16, 2014, the HAWSCT issued an unanimous opinion in Oahu Publications, Inc., dba The Honolulu Star-Advertiser vs. The Honorable Karen S.S. Ahn, SCPW-13-0003250, authored by Justice Pollack, holding that the public has a right to an open courtroom in criminal proceedings, and defined the scope of that right.
The underlying case related to the criminal trial of Christopher Deedy, the U.S. State Department Special Agent charged with murder in a 2011 shooting of a Hawaii man in a Waikiki McDonalds during that year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings. During the first trial (which subsequently ended in a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury), the circuit court conducted five court proceeding on the fifth day of jury deliberations that were not open to the public. The transcripts of those proceedings were also sealed. The Star-Advertiser sought a writ of prohibition to prohibit the court from enforcing the order sealing the records, and writ of mandamus to prevent the circuit court from similarly closing the proceedings to the public in Deedy’s retrial (which is underway now).
As to the writ of prohibition, the HAWSCT dismissed the writ as moot because the relief the Star-Advertiser requested had already been provided per a related remand to the circuit court by the HAWSCT. As a result of the remand, the transcripts were unsealed, in part, with limitations approved by the court.
As to the writ of mandamus, the HAWSCT denied the writ because it “seeks to peremptorily prohibit [the circuit court judge] from again closing her courtroom unless specific steps are followed.” Slip. Op. at 3. However, the court decided to “adopt procedures to guide our courts in the future when making a determination whether to close court proceedings or to deny public access to the transcript of the closed proceedings.” Id.
In reaching its conclusion, the court held that “article 1, section 4 of the Hawaii Constitution provides the public with a qualified right of access to observe court proceedings in criminal trials.” Slip. Op. at 30. According to the HAWCT, the right may be overcome if (1) the trial court “articulate(s) the interest the closure protects, along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure was properly entered,” and (2) “provide a reasonable opportunity to object.” Slip. Op. at 31-32 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
The court also held that the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial trial must also be considered and weighed against the public’s right to access. With regarding to the issue raised in Deedy’s case – potential juror misconduct – the HAWSCT held that the trial court should consider: “the nature and likely risk to the defendant’s right to an impartial jury; the probability of such risk impacting the juror’s impartiality; the likely prejudicial impact of the risk; and, the availability and efficacy of alternative means to neutralize the effect of the reach of such risk.” Slip. Op. at 65-66.
The HAWSCT’s full opinion is available here.