Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Karen Ahn must explain why she closed certain proceedings during a high-profile murder trial last year, including on the final day of deliberations when she cleared her courtroom of spectators and the media before announcing a deadlocked jury.

On Thursday, the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered Ahn to provide a legal explanation for her decision to exclude the public from some parts of the trial of Christopher Deedy, the U.S. State Department agent who shot and killed a Kailua man in a Waikiki McDonald’s.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now asked the high court to make Ahn release transcripts of closed proceedings in September, saying she had violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment by excluding the public without explanation and without providing an opportunity to object.

Honolulu attorney Jeff Portnoy, who represents the newspaper and TV station, said Thursday’s ruling is essentially asking Ahn for a do-over. Not only must she outline her reasons for sealing the transcripts, he said, but she also must hold a hearing to allow for arguments if she sticks to her initial rulings.

“The Supreme Court after six months has basically punted and sent it back to the Circuit Court,” Portnoy said. “At least we’re getting an open hearing and she’s going to have to make findings and conclusions to support what she did, so it’s a victory in that regard.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t specifically say that Ahn violated any laws or courtroom procedures during the Deedy trial. The three-page document simply lays out a timeline for the news organizations to ask for official transcripts and for Ahn to respond to that request, further dragging the matter out.

The high court’s ruling also ignored a supplemental brief filed by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest on behalf of 11 other news organizations, including Civil Beat, KITV, KHON, Hawaii Public Radio, Hawaii Reporter, Hawaii Tribune-Herald, West Hawaii Today and Maui Time Weekly.

While the news organizations supported the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now push to get the transcripts released, law center attorney Brian Black also asked the justices to go further by reversing a 35-year-old ruling that says the press in Hawaii does not have a First Amendment right to attend court hearings.

Black agreed with Portnoy’s assessment that the justices “punted” on the major issues underlying the case as related to the public’s right to attend criminal proceedings. But he also said Thursday’s decision to send the case back to Ahn doesn’t preclude the justices from weighing in on the matter in the future if she decides to keep the transcripts sealed.

“They punted, but they punted with the idea that it could come back to them,” Black said. “Assuming she is still keeping (the transcripts) sealed then it could end up back before the Supreme Court.”

Deedy was charged with second-degree murder for the November 2011 shooting of 23-year-old Kollin Elderts. A mistrial was declared after a seven-week trial when jurors couldn’t come to a unanimous verdict. Deedy claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot Elderts.

Read the Hawaii Supreme Court order here:

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