WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Constitution’s guarantee of a public trial means judges may not ordinarily close their courtrooms during jury selection.
In an unsigned 7-to-2 opinion, the court set aside the cocaine trafficking conviction of a Georgia man who challenged the trial judge’s decision to prohibit the public from attending proceedings in which lawyers questioned prospective jurors.
The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to insist on a public trial, extending even to jury selection, the court said. In earlier rulings, the court had said that the public and the news media could assert their right to attend all the phases of a trial.
“Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials,’’ the court said.
The ruling gives defendants the ability to insist on a courtroom that is open to the public even when there is no news media interest in a case.
The Georgia defendant, Eric Presley, objected to the judge’s decision to prevent his uncle from watching jury selection.
Judges must consider reasonable alternatives to closing their courtrooms, the court said. The Georgia Supreme Court said it was not always necessary to do that. The high court said there might be reasons for keeping the public out, including the threat of improper communications with jurors or safety concerns.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia. Thomas said the court should not have summarily reversed the Georgia court. The issues at stake are important enough to warrant argument before the justices, Thomas said.
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made a similar ruling, determining that judges must allow the public in court during the jury selection process. In making the ruling, the high court overturned the corruption conviction of former Stoughton police sergeant David Cohen, who was convicted of attempted extortion and filing a false police report. His lawyers had contended he deserved a new trial because his relatives and friends were not in the Dedham courtroom when some of the jurors who convicted him were chosen.
In other actions yesterday, justices:
■ Threw out a ruling that set aside the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter and Black Panther who has been on death row for 28 years for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had ruled he deserved a new sentencing hearing because of flawed jury instructions. The Supreme Court ordered the court to revisit that ruling. The justices pointed to their ruling last week in an Ohio case, in which they said a neo-Nazi killer did not deserve a new sentencing hearing on the same grounds.
■ Rejected for now California’s challenge to a preliminary court order forcing the state to reduce its prison population, setting up the state’s appeal of a final order issued last week. In a short ruling, the justices said they will not immediately take up a tentative ruling issued by a special judicial panel in August. The three-judge federal panel had ruled that reducing the state’s prison population by about 40,000 inmates over two years is necessary to improve medical and health care throughout the state’s 33 adult prisons. The nation’s high court said it will await the state’s appeal of the final order.
■ Ordered a federal appeals court to take a new look at the death sentence of a Georgia man because of raunchy gifts that jurors sent the judge and a courtroom bailiff. Marcus Wellons was convicted of raping and strangling 15-year-old India Roberts in suburban Atlanta in 1989. The Supreme Court split, 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining his four more liberal colleagues in setting aside an appeals court ruling that upheld Wellons’s death sentence. At issue is whether Wellons received a fair trial in light of disclosures that, after the penalty phase, the jurors sent chocolate in the shape of a penis to the judge and chocolate in the shape of a pair of breasts to the bailiff.