A Hennepin County judge granted two defendants’ requests to open their hearings to full public access, but refused to allow the same to apply to all hearings in the county.

Hennepin County District Judge Jeannice Reding denied the defendants’ motions to halt an order by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea that limits courtroom access in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“Public access to court proceedings is a fundamental underpinning of the American judicial system,” Reding wrote in an order filed Wednesday. “In the current situation involving the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, it has been determined … that personal contact between individuals be limited.”

Attorney Paul Sellers filed motions last week on behalf of Christopher A. Kelly and Derrick L. Brown arguing that limiting courtroom access violated their constitutional right to a public trial.

“This is unprecedented in American jurisprudence and a litany of cases exist which prohibit this extreme exclusion of the public,” Sellers wrote.

He advocated opening up all court hearings in Hennepin County to unlimited public access, and he argued that Gildea’s order barred the public from attending because it restricted courtroom access to court staff, immediate family members and victims, among select others. Media can request access with 24 hours’ notice.

Sellers filed two new requests Monday: The court should issue an order allowing “unlimited access” to his clients’ hearings, or allow his office to livestream the proceedings without limitation.

“The right of a public trial is ‘for the benefit of the accused; that the public may see the defendant is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned,’ ” Sellers wrote in his Monday request, citing case law.

Reding wrote in her order that Sellers’ first motions did not outline the district court’s authority to issue an injunction prohibiting the execution of Gildea’s order.

Most court hearings have been canceled due to the pandemic, the judge wrote, adding that Gildea’s order allows judges to expand courtroom access at their discretion.

The mass cancellation of hearings will permit the use of empty courtrooms to accommodate attendees at Kelly’s or Brown’s hearings while observing the social distancing recommended to stem the spread of corona­virus, Reding wrote.

Should attendance in the courtroom where the defendants are appearing reach unsafe levels, a live video stream of the proceedings will be broadcast in an overflow courtroom, the judge ordered.

“Most court hearings are attended by only a few individuals,” Reding wrote.

The judge denied Sellers’ request that his office livestream the court proceedings.


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