The Hawaii Supreme Court issued a firm rebuke of the judge in the Christopher Deedy murder trial who last year improperly held private courtroom proceedings and sealed transcripts.

In a 66-page ruling, the Supreme Court said open trials are a “fundamental component of our system of law” and should only be closed in the most extenuating circumstances.

“In keeping with our firmly embedded policy of open trials, the circuit court, and all Hawaiʻi courts conducting criminal proceedings involving adult defendants, are directed to refrain from closing trial proceedings that are presumptively open to the public,” the high court’s opinion states.

“The presumption of openness may be overcome only by an overriding interest. The court must set forth specific findings demonstrating the closure is essential to preserve the overriding interest, and the closure is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”

Circout Court Judge Karen Ahn

Judge Karen Ahn gives instructions to the jury on the first day of the Christopher Deedy re-trial in Honolulu on July 10, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The case stems from decisions Circuit Court Judge Karen Ahn made on Aug. 26, 2013, the day she declared the jury was deadlocked in the Deedy trial.

Deedy, a U.S. State Department special agent, faced a second-degree murder charge for killing 23-year-old Kollin Elderts, of Kailua, in a Waikiki McDonald’s. His retrial is currently under way.

Ahn had kicked members of the public and media out of her courtroom last year so she could talk with attorneys in private about a matter involving a juror. She had also held other private talks with the attorneys earlier in the day and sealed all the transcripts to those discussions.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now challenged Ahn’s decision to close the courtroom and seal transcripts, saying it was a violation of First Amendment rights.

Many news outlets, including Civil Beat, KHON, KITV, Hawaii Public Radio and several other neighbor island publications, filed a brief supporting the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now that at the same time urged the court to keep trials open to the public.

The Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalist and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also signed on.

The high court’s ruling found that Ahn should have provided the public and the media a chance to object to the closure of the proceedings, and made a strong point that open access to trials is a “fundamental component of our system of law.”

The justices highlighted Hawaii’s history of open access to courts, citing two of the state’s most notorious trials.

“Hawaiʻi’s courts have a long tradition of accessibility by the public; the legal framework utilized by the alii transitioned from the kapu system to the use of public trials by jury during the 1820s,” the opinion states.

“Queen Liliʻuokalani reported that during her trial by a military tribunal in February 1895 the courtroom was ‘crowded with curious spectators.’ Similarly, the “Massie” case, a 1932 high profile murder case that made headlines across the country was attended by a ‘standing-room-only crowd of spectators.’”

Jeff Portnoy, who represented the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now in the case, told the newspaper that the high court’s ruling has far-reaching implications for all future trials and should serve as a reminder to all judges that the courts should remain open to the public.

“This case is about as much of a ringing endorsement of the right of the media and the public to attend criminal trials as any case that I’ve seen in the country,” Portnoy said. “It even says Hawaii’s right is greater than the U.S. constitutional right. It’s pretty amazing. It’s the most significant free press case to come out of the Hawaii Supreme Court in many a decade.”

Read the full opinion here:

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