It’s In Your Court: Court hearings are open to the public, but are not public hearings


Judge Steve Halsey

At our judicial trainings one of our very-experienced judges with a long criminal law background has lectured the attendees, “Never…never…never… close the courtroom to the public.” Under Minnesota’s court rules the vast majority of court hearings, other than juvenile delinquency hearings and adoptions, are open to the public. A judge must state very specific reasons on the court record why the courtroom is being closed to the public and for what purpose. 

Even though court hearings are largely open to the public, it does not render them “public hearings.” By this I mean the type of hearing where members of the public are invited and allowed to speak in support of or in opposition to a certain issue or action by a governmental entity. Examples would be a county board or city council considering a public improvement project (sewer, water, park, roads, etc.) or whether a variance (exception) should be granted to a homeowner wishing to build a shed or garage closer to a neighbor than allowed by city code. 

Under our court rules, in a hearing where testimony is heard from sworn witnesses, only the witnesses called by a party or their lawyer may testify. Members of the audience sometimes stand up — usually friends or family related to the party — and announce something to the effect of “I have something to say!” These demands are sometimes loud and angry. Such persons are not allowed to testify or provide legal argument unless they have a recognized legal interest in the litigation as a party or, for example, are an heir in a probate case. 

A means for non-parties to have their argument heard is by requesting permission from the court to appear as “amicus curiae,” meaning (in Latin) “friend of the court.” This involvement as a non-party is usually limited to filing a brief to the appellate court. Whether an amicus brief can be filed is in the discretion of the court. 

In summary, if you go to court, it is very unlikely anyone will be denied access to the hearing. Our courts are open to the public. 

 

— Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at www.minnesotafamilylawissues.blogspot.com.

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