Published on: Thursday, June 22, 2017

In Weaver v. Massachusetts, No 16-240, the state trial courtroom was closed to the public during two days of jury selection because the potential jurors occupied all of the seats. Defense counsel did not object. The juvenile defendant was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In post-conviction proceedings, the defendant argued that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance because he did not object to the closure of the courtroom during jury voir dire. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court acknowledged that a violation of the right to a public trial is a structural error, but concluded that "while the public-trial right is important for fundamental reasons, in some cases an unlawful closure might take place and yet the trial still will be fundamentally fair from the defendant’s standpoint." In the case of an unpreserved claim of violation of the public trial right, raised in the context of a claim based on ineffective assistance of counsel, "the burden is on the defendant to show either a reasonable probability of a different outcome in his or her case or [] to show the particular public-trial violation was so serious as to render his or her trial fundamentally unfair." In this case, the petitioner failed to meet that burden.

The Court was careful to note that "[n]either the reasoning nor the holding here calls into question the Court’s precedents determining that certain errors are deemed structural and require reversal because they cause fundamental unfairness, either to the defendant in the specific case or by pervasive undermining of the systemic requirements of a fair and open judicial process."

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred. Justice Alito also concurred, also joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan, dissented.

For the opinion, click here