Integrity, like character, is often defined by doing what’s right even when no one is looking. And, like the sunshine laws that allow the general public greater knowledge of our government’s actions by limiting what government can do when no one is looking, the constitutional requirement that our courtrooms shall be open to the public seeks to promote the integrity of our judicial system by limiting what can go on behind closed doors in our courtrooms and thus shielded from public scrutiny.
At some point years ago in Montgomery County someone thought it was a good idea for divorce and family court hearings and trials to occur in closed courtrooms. Since then our family courtrooms have been, and continue to be, extremely small rooms in which no one is allowed other than court personnel, the litigants, one witness at a time, and the attorneys. And no one that I am aware of has bothered to challenge or even consider whether such closed door proceedings have harmed our families and diminished the integrity of our judicial system by allowing those who may lack personal integrity to ignore the rules of law and act however they chose to act, all within virtual secrecy.
The recent disclosure of alleged horrendous conduct by a local judge should cause us all to stop and consider whether such alleged abuses of the system and of our families could have occurred, or whether they would have been at least less likely to occur, if everyone in the courtroom, including the judge, knew that the general public would be or could be watching and listening to how the proceedings were conducted. It doesn’t take a legal scholar or any specialized knowledge of the law to be qualified to determine if a judge’s demeanor or the way a judge conducts a hearing is contrary to common decency and general fairness.
Our founding fathers determined that open courtrooms, except in very rare circumstances, are critical to our liberties and to the dispensing of justice. The United States Supreme Court has reminded us in many of its rulings since the birth of our nation that our distrust of secret trials is rightfully founded in our belief that closed trials, and the opportunity for abuse that such closed trials provide, are an obvious menace to basic liberty. There are numerous benefits that flow from the guarantee of open trials including the absolute fact that open trials provide a necessary safeguard against attempts to employ our courts as instruments of persecution through deliberate means or otherwise.
On constitutional grounds alone the practice of conducting family court proceedings behind closed doors should end. Our family court proceedings should be open to the public where advocates for the system and interested citizens can attend and observe the manner in which justice is dispensed and thus create an environment where any lack of integrity will be obvious and where the bright light of public scrutiny will highlight integrity and expose the lack of it and thus hopefully avoid the detriment that our families and the justice system recently suffered for so long behind those closed door courtrooms