Saturday, October 25, 2008 (SF Chronicle)
Closed courtroom leads to call for more access
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

  (10-24) 16:42 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Judicial Council,
responding to an incident in which reporters and the public were barred
from a court hearing in a murder case, told the state's judges Friday to
include public access in their security plans.
  State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, proposed the access requirement
after Yolo County sheriff's deputies closed a Woodland courtroom June 18
for the arraignment of Marco Topete, charged with murdering Deputy Jose
Diaz. The deputies, acting without a judge's order, allowed only Diaz's
family and law enforcement officers to attend.
  Sheriff Ed Prieto later called the lockout a mistake by his officers, and
other hearings in the case have been open to the public. But Romero,
chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said in a letter to the
Judicial Council that news reports indicated the county's courtrooms have
been closed at other times in the past.
  "Open court proceedings are a cornerstone of our system of justice,"
Romero wrote. "Openness assures the public that justice is administered
fairly and guards against prosecutorial bias and perjury."
  Both the U.S. and California supreme courts have said the public has a
constitutional right to attend most court hearings. California closes
courts in juvenile cases and some family law proceedings. It also requires
a judge to hold a public hearing before closing proceedings for any other
reason, such as to protect trade secrets or a defendant's right to a fair
  The Yolo County incident illustrated the need to train officers who guard
courthouses in the public's right of access, said Tom Newton, a lawyer for
the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
  Romero's proposal requires that counties spell out in court security plans
how officers will be trained in access issues and maintain contact with
lawyers, the news media and others interested in open courtrooms. It also
says counties must make sure that security measures protect defendants'
right to an open trial.
  The Judicial Council, policy-making body for California's courts, adopted
the plan unanimously at a meeting in San Francisco.

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