Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Second Circuit Finally Puts an End to Judge Kram’s Practice of Conducting Pleas and Sentencings in Her Robing Room

United States v. Carlos Goiry and Luz Marina Munoz, Nos. 02-1010, 03-1061 (2d Cir. Jan. 24, 2005) (No. 02-1010: Walker, Cardamone, and Straub) (No. 03-1061: Winter, Straub, and Lay) (Opinion by Straub).

FACTS: In two cases consolidated on appeal, the defendants-appellants both entered guilty pleas and were sentenced by Judge Shirley Kram of the Southern District of New York. Judge Kram conducted the guilty plea proceeding (in one case) and the sentencing (in the other case) in her robing room, located just off her courtroom. As anyone who has practiced before Judge Kram knows, this is her standard practice.

Judge Kram did not make any findings to justify her actions, nor did she notify the public that she intended to close these proceedings. None of the parties objected to Judge Kram’s decision to conduct the proceedings in her robing room.

HELD: Conducting plea and sentencing proceedings in the robing room “infringed on the First Amendment right of access of the public and the press.” Slip Op. at 24. In order to do so in the future, the judge must (1) “make specific, on the record findings . . . demonstrating that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest,” id. at 18 (quotations omitted), and (2) ensure that the public is sufficiently notified in advance of a potential closure by “promptly” putting a closure motion on the docket sheet, id. at 19. The Court also ruled that the closed proceedings violated Rule 11’s requirement that guilty plea proceedings be conducted in “open court,” id. at 27, and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c)’s requirement that “[t]he court, at the time of sentencing, shall state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence,” id. at 31.

REMEDY: “Based on the unique circumstances presented by [these] cases, we, in the exercise of our supervisory powers, vacate the plea and sentence proceedings not held in open court in these cases and remand both cases to the District Court for further proceedings to be held in the public courtroom.” Slip Op. at 25.

COMMENTARY: Although the holding appears straightforward (i.e., that the strong presumption of open proceedings applies to guilty plea proceedings and sentencings, and can be overcome only upon a showing of compelling need and with prior notice), this is a very odd opinion. Given that the press was not a party to this case, why didn’t the Court simply rule that the defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated by the closures? The Court specifically avoided the Sixth Amendment issue, however, commenting that it did not need to address this question “[b]ecause we choose to remand the case under our supervisory powers.” Slip Op. at 26.

One suspects that the Court avoided a Sixth Amendment public trial analysis — despite its obvious relevance — because it did not wish to open the floodgates for the hundreds (if not thousands) of defendants who suffered through the same fate before Judge Kram. Regardless, it seems that a defendant whose plea or sentencing proceeding was conducted by Judge Kram can rely upon this case’s analysis and reasoning to satisfy the 4-part test of Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984), and thus demonstrate that the court violated his or her Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Such an error, of course, is not subject to harmless error review. Id. at 49; see Guzman v. Kelly, 80 F.3d 772, 776 (2d Cir. 1996).

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