Most Coloradans may not have noticed, but an important right of theirs was reinforced last week by the state Supreme Court. It's the right to attend judicial proceedings under all but the most extraordinary circumstances.
This constitutional right may be one that most people simply take for granted. And it may also be a right that is too often presented in terms of courtroom access for the press. But constitutional rights apply equally to all, and if judges start closing judicial proceedings, it won't be only the press that will be the loser.
All of us will lose the ability to monitor what goes on in our system of justice.
That's why it was reassuring to see the Colorado Supreme Court reaffirm that a judge can't close a preliminary hearing even in a highly publicized case merely on a hunch that it might jeopardize a defendant's right to a fair trial.
The high court said a judge has to make "specific findings demonstrating a substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent and that reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant's fair trial rights."
Moreover, the court added, Judge Stephen Munsinger did not adhere to these conditions before announcing that he would close a hearing Friday in the murder case of Austin Sigg, who has been charged in Jefferson County court with killing 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway.
Munsinger opened the hearing rather than attempt to meet the standard enunciated by the high court, which was actually laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago. And it's just as well he did, since it's hard to see how he could have demonstrated that Sigg's right to a fair trial was remotely in jeopardy because of what might transpire.
After all, an assistant district attorney had already stated publicly that Sigg had confessed to the murder of Ridgeway; it had also been reported that DNA linked him to the crime. How could any additional revelation be more prejudicial than those?
And yet there is no reason Sigg shouldn't get a fair trial, just as other notorious defendants have in the past. Courts have many ways to ensure an open-minded jury, and history shows that jurors themselves try hard to be fair.
Fair trials are not put at risk by legal transparency, a point we're glad to see the state high court affirm.
The Denver Post, Feb. 28