1. “The judge, on an at best, partially developed record, required one spectator to view one witness’s testimony contemporaneously from a neighboring room. Is this the sort of closure requiring reversal contemplated by the right to a public trial[?]”
2. “Did the Fourth Court of Appeals fail to adequately address petitioner’s argument that the courtroom was not closed as required by Rule 47.1 of the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure[?]”
3. “Does the Fourth Court of Appeals’s opinion fail to provide proper guidance and risk creating confusion for other courts when it failed to make a clear distinction between full and partial courtroom closures and the standards applicable to each type of closure[?]”
Williams was tried for a drug offense. One of the witnesses against her was a confidential informant. The State asked that her family member, Jerry Williams (Jerry), be excluded from the courtroom during the informant’s testimony because it had “credible and reliable information” that Jerry’s presence would impair the informant’s testimony through intimidation. The trial court granted the request and provided a live video feed so that Jerry could view the informant’s testimony from another room in the courthouse. Williams was convicted.
The court of appeals reversed for a violation of Williams’s right to a public trial. It held that the courtroom was “closed” because Jerry was excluded from the courtroom for the testimony of one witness. It further held that there were no specific findings and no evidence in the record “indicating a nexus between the exclusion of Williams’s family member and the interest advanced by the State.” Reversal was automatic because the error is structural.
The State challenges that holding on multiple points. First, the court of appeals failed to address the State’s argument that the courtroom was not “closed” simply because Jerry had to watch one witness’s testimony through a live video feed. Second, if it did constitute a closure, it falls within the “de minimis” or “triviality” exceptions to reversal adopted by multiple federal circuit courts of appeals. As those courts have held, some violations simply have too little effect on the interests protected by the right to public trial to warrant automatic reversal. Third, the court of appeals acknowledged but did not consider the authority that requires a lesser justification for partial closures. When the courtroom is not entirely closed to the public, some courts require a “substantial basis” for the closure rather than the “overriding interest” that full closure requires. The State asks the Court of Criminal Appeals to settle the applicability of the latter two doctrines.