Thursday, September 15, 2011

South Dakota Recognizes Right of Access to Civil Trials

Bear Country USAImage by Mr. George1 via FlickrIn Rapid City Journal, Associated Press & South Dakota Newspaper Association v. The Hon. John J. Delaney, South Dakota Seventh Circuit Court Judge (Case. No. 2011 S.D. 55), the South Dakota Supreme Court last week ruled that the public and the press have a qualified First Amendment right of access to civil trials.

As noted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Website (, the High Court's unanimous 21-page opinion puts South Dakota in the majority of states and federal courts that recognize a First Amendment right of access to civil proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue, but in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980), found the public had a First Amendment right of access to criminal trials, absent a "compelling governmental interest" that is "narrowly tailored" to bar attendance.

Defendant Rapid City Circuit Court Judge John Delaney's orders were overbroad and  improperly closed the courtroom doors, sealed records and issued gag orders, the High Court ruled,  in a case that involved an interfamilial fight concerning the fair value of Bear Country USA, a popular tourist attraction. The parties persuaded Judge Delaney to exclude the public and press to protect their privacy interests, purported confidential information, trade secrets and financial documents. The plaintiffs sued, claiming the courtroom closure violated the First Amendment.

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