I don't envy Michael Hendrickson, the presiding judge for Missouri's 30th Judicial Circuit, which includes Webster County.
The judge has a lot of very weighty concerns to balance in this unprecedented time in our history. First among these is public health. The coronavirus pandemic is not over, even as the state and its communities attempt to work their way toward a return to regular public activity and commerce. New cases of COVID-19 continue to emerge, though the numbers are declining (we had one new case this week in Webster County), and all of us are forced to work together to find a way to keep our economy alive.
Hendrickson has the added burden of the Sixth Amendment to consider. That's the one that protects every citizen's right to a trial that is both "speedy and public," in the words of the nation's founders.
Put yourself in the judge’s shoes for a moment. He must keep courtrooms safe in a pandemic, but he must also allow cases to proceed without undue delay, since the passage of time takes a toll on witnesses' memories while also prolonging a restriction on freedom or even incarceration for a defendant who is presumed innocent.
But another vital right we have as Americans is is for legal proceedings to take place in a public setting. In countries that lack our freedoms, a kangaroo court might rush to judgment without hearing witnesses or considering evidence and without due process being followed.
Our legal system is not without its flaws, but the main factor that keeps it functioning fairly is the fact that it is always under scrutiny by the public. This is how it should be, and that’s why the right to a public trial is part of our Bill of Rights.
There’s another amendment that I think about every day, and that is the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to a free press.
Judge Hendrickson must provide a trial that is both speedy and public, and he must also find a way to keep participants in court proceedings from facing undue risk. Remember, not everyone in a courtroom is there voluntarily, but all are presumed innocent — another cornerstone of our legal system. It is urgently important to protect even the accused from contracting a potentially lethal disease.
Judge Hendrickson prepared an order that thoughtfully and carefully outlined several phases for reopening the courts. We are currently in phase one, which restricts the public from observing cases in the courtroom, and even restricts the public from being adjacent to the proceedings. What that means is that you can't be in the courtroom, even if a loved on is facing serious charges, and you can’t even look through the window or listen from the door. What’s more, I can't enter as a member of the media and function as your eyes and ears. It seems to me that the vital importance of ensuring public safety is at odds with the critical right of the public to see our justice system in action, and it is similarly at odds with the First Amendment rights that would allow the media to witness events as your proxy.
While I praise Judge Hendrickson for his thorough plans to keep the public safe from harm, I also urge him to find a way to allow public oversight of our justice system and to provide unfettered access for the media.
Everywhere you look, businesses and individuals are finding creative ways to return to normal activities while minimizing the chance of infection from COVID-19. I would like to see us go back to the drawing board to find a better way to balance public health while accommodating all of our Constitutional rights.