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A Times Editorial

Keep openness in court

As the adage goes, hard cases can make bad law. They also can result in closing public records that should not be kept secret. As the anger over the outcome of the Casey Anthony case fades, so should interest by state lawmakers in filing legislation to keep the names of jurors secret. Judges already have the authority to keep jurors' names temporarily secret in unusual situations, and requiring that the names be routinely kept confidential would undermine confidence in the justice system.

Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, is exploring legislation that would keep the names of jurors secret for at least nine months unless they voluntarily identified themselves. He already has filed another constitutionally suspect bill that would make it a felony for any juror to sell his or her story within 270 days after any civil or criminal trial. That would violate the First Amendment rights of jurors, and the notion that jurors' names should routinely be kept secret is just as misguided.

In most all civil and criminal trials, the questioning of potential jurors is performed in open court and their names are public. In high-profile cases where jurors may be contacted as the trial progresses, some judges are keeping the names secret until the trial concludes. There also may be the unusual case involving organized crime or specific threats to juries that would require confidentiality for some period. But these are extraordinarily rare situations, and most civil and criminal jury trials receive little public attention. There is no need for a blanket of secrecy to be thrown over juries.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed these issues in a 1984 opinion involving the secrecy of jury selection and the identity of jurors. It said there must be an overriding interest to overcome the presumption of openness. It also spoke clearly about the importance of openness in ensuring fair trials and confidence in the jury system. Keeping the names of jurors secret would erode the tradition of openness in the courts that has been common practice since the nation was founded.

The Casey Anthony trial was a rare situation involving unusual circumstances, worldwide media attention and a sequestered jury of Pinellas County residents who spent six weeks in Orange County. Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr. kept the names of the jurors secret during the trial and has imposed a cooling-off period. He has yet to issue a written order in response to a request by the St. Petersburg Times and other news organizations to release the names. But at least three jurors already have spoken to the media and one has been publicly identified. Their comments about their deliberations have been helpful in explaining how the jury found Anthony not guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter. While many members of the public may disagree with their conclusion, it is clear jurors took the work seriously and did not come easily to their decision.

Openness, including the identities of jurors, is essential to preserving fairness and confidence in the justice system. The Florida Legislature should not tamper with that constitutional ideal and allow judgement in civil and criminal trials to be routinely rendered anonymously.

Keep openness in court 07/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 6:40pm]
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