Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Sixth Amendment - Second Circuit Affirms Conviction despite Closure to the Public of a Voir Dire

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Sixth Amendment - Second Circuit Affirms Conviction despite Closure to the Public of a Voir Dire

Article excerpt


--United States v. Gupta, 650 F.3d 863 (2d Cir. 2011).

When deciding whether to tolerate trial court errors that infringe on the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, appellate court judges must balance the protection of individual rights against efficiency considerations. Recently, in United States v. Gupta, (1) the Second Circuit held that a trial court's closure to the public of the entire voir dire process in a criminal trial was too trivial an infringement of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial to warrant any remedy. In so doing, the Gupta court altered Second Circuit doctrine by discounting consideration of the characteristics of the trial judge's improper closure of the courtroom (2) and instead giving determinative weight to whether any specific events during the improperly closed proceeding deprived the defendant of his Sixth Amendment protections. Practically, this holding may narrow the recourse available to defendants whose public trial rights are violated. Doctrinally, the holding may bring the Second Circuit's triviality doctrine in line with the harmless error doctrine, putting it in tension with the Supreme Court's precedent that the harmless error doctrine does not apply in the public trial context.

Raghubir Gupta was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York with one count of preparing and filing false immigration documents. (3) At the beginning of jury selection, the trial judge instructed her courtroom deputy to remove those members of the public who were not venire panel members from the courtroom. (4) The courtroom deputy later said that the judge closed the courtroom in order "to accommodate the large number of jurors in the venire panel, and to protect the panel from hearing anything about the case from any member of the public present." (5) As a result, Gupta's brother and girlfriend were removed from the courtroom. (6) With the courtroom closed, the court then proceeded through the jury selection process. (7) When members of the public reentered, the jury had been empanelled. (8) At the end of the trial, the jury found Gupta guilty. He was later sentenced to fifty-one months in prison. (9) Gupta appealed, asserting, inter alia, that the closure of the courtroom during the entirety of voir dire violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. (10)

The Second Circuit affirmed Gupta's conviction. (11) Writing for the panel, Judge Hall (12) found that while the trial court's closure of the courtroom during voir dire was improper, the infringement on the defendant's rights was too trivial to warrant a new trial. (13) The court also concluded that the recent Supreme Court decision in Presley v. Georgia (14)--which held that the Sixth Amendment public trial right extended to voir dire (15)--did not require the reversal of Gupta's conviction."

In arriving at its holding, the court first determined that the closure of the courtroom throughout voir dire was an error. (17) The court reached this conclusion by applying the Supreme Court's test from Waller v. Georgia, (18) which sets forth the factors that must be satisfied to justify a courtroom closure. (19) The court found that the trial judge's justifications for excluding the public from the courtroom were "insufficient to justify a courtroom closure" under Waller. (20)

Notwithstanding the fact that the closure of the courtroom was improper, the court found that under the Second Circuit's "triviality exception" the closure did not violate Gupta's Sixth Amendment public trial right. (21) The court explained that the triviality exception differs from harmless error review. (22) The inquiry is not whether the defendant "suffer[ed] 'prejudice' or 'specific injury.'" (23) Rather, it asks whether the defendant, guilty or innocent, was deprived of the protections provided by the Sixth Amendment. …

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