A Minneapolis man facing assault charges wants to overturn a judge’s order that bars the general public from attending court proceedings in light of the coronavirus, arguing that the safety measure violates his constitutional right to a public trial.
A motion filed Wednesday in Hennepin County District Court by Christopher A. Kelly’s attorney could be the first challenge to extensive limitations placed on state court operations in an effort to stop infection.
It raises questions about balancing public safety with defendants’ rights as unprecedented restrictions roll out across nearly all sectors in Minnesota, where the global pandemic had infected 398 and killed four as of Friday.
“The right to a public trial can scarcely be regarded as less fundamental and essential to a fair trial than the right to assistance of counsel or the right to timely proceedings,” wrote Kelly’s attorney, Paul Sellers.
Kelly, 42, is scheduled to appear for an omnibus hearing on April 6 on one count of second-degree assault.
On March 20, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued an order limiting access to courtroom proceedings to the people involved, including attorneys and court staff, victims and “immediate family members,” among others.
She allowed the media to attend with 24 hours’ notice to the court.
Asked for comment on Kelly’s motion, the State Court Administrator’s office, which manages court operations in conjunction with the chief justice, deferred to Gildea’s statements in the order: “The balancing of public health and access to justice during this time is testing our systems and procedures. The steps we announce today will help us maintain that delicate balance.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said a U.S. Supreme Court decision allows the partial closure of hearings “in light of unusual circumstances.”
“COVID-19 is an unusual circumstance,” Freeman said. “I firmly believe the court will deny the defendant’s motion.”
Sellers argued that “immediate family members” excludes others in a defendant’s life, and that media access does not equate to a public trial, a right guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.
“This is unprecedented in American jurisprudence and a litany of cases exist which prohibit this extreme exclusion of the public,” Sellers wrote.
Gildea’s order did not specify when restrictions on courtroom access would expire, but several other aspects of her order were set through April 22.
Sellers said in his motion that Kelly, who is in custody at the county jail, should not have to delay his hearing until courtroom access is reopened.
Sellers requested that a Hennepin County District judge overturn Gildea’s order.
Freeman said he appreciated Sellers’ effort, but noted that the attorney did not specify why his client was unduly impacted compared to other defendants.
“Clearly with the risk to public health, the determination [Gildea] made is reasonable, and most everyone has agreed to them,” Freeman said.
Gildea began issuing orders on March 13 in reaction to the coronavirus, urging attorneys and judges to hold hearings remotely, in addition to other changes.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708