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South Dakota: First Amendment Right of Access to Criminal Trials Extends to Civil Trials as Well

In September 2011, the Supreme Court of South Dakota issued a permanent writ of prohibition, effectively rescinding an order by the Honorable John J. Delaney, circuit court judge, which (1) imposed a gag order on the parties and (2) closed the trial and court records in a civil action involving the shareholders of Bear Country USA, Inc., a family-owned South Dakota corporation. Closure of the trial had been requested by both parties to the Bear Country proceedings on the grounds of a purported need to protect confidential business records.

After learning of Judge Delaney's order, representatives of the media, including the Associated Press, moved to intervene, arguing that the order improperly infringed upon their qualified First Amendment and common law rights of access to the courts, as well as to their First Amendment right to gather and report the news.

After Judge Delaney rejected the media's arguments, the media petitioned the Supreme Court of South Dakota for a writ of prohibition. The Court agreed to address the issue presented, even though Bear Country's trial had ended, because it deemed the issue "capable of repetition yet evading review."

After canvassing state and federal cases, the Court concluded that the media and public's established, qualified right of access to criminal trials extends to civil trials as well. It then held that the procedure and reasoning employed by Judge Delaney were flawed in four respects. First, Judge Delaney did not correctly apply the First Amendment (or common law) presumption of openness-- the basis for assuring the public of the fairness of the courts and the judicial system. Second, he did not require the parties to show that closure was necessary "to preserve higher values." Third, he failed to articulate specific findings which would permit meaningful appellate review. And fourth, he did not narrowly tailor the closure order. Accordingly, the Court concluded, Judge Delaney abused his discretion in closing the trial proceedings to the media and public. For similar reasons, it concluded that the gag order was inappropriate. See: Rapid City Journal v. Delaney, 804 NW 2d 388, 2011 SD 55.

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Related legal case

Rapid City Journal v. Delaney