TALLAHASSEE (AP) — The Florida Supreme Court is divided over whether a state law meets muster by allowing part of sex crime trials to be closed to the public although the seven justices on Thursday unanimously upheld closure in one instance.
The ruling affirmed Anthony Kovaleski’s conviction on charges of lewd and lascivious acts against a minor in Indian River County.
The justices split, though, on their reasoning for affirming the partial closure of his trial. Four justices said Florida’s law will always meet criteria for excluding the public set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state law allows an alleged sex crime victim, regardless of age, to seek closure when he or she is testifying. The law, however, permits immediate family members or guardians of defendants and victims to be present. Also, court reporters, media, lawyers and their secretaries can remain in the courtroom. Victim advocates can stay, too, at an alleged victim’s request.
Justice Barbara Pariente agreed with affirming Kovaleski’s conviction because he failed to explain why he objected to the partial closure. She disagreed that the law always meets all four of the U.S. Supreme Court’s criteria.
Pariente acknowledged that the law meets two criteria: The party seeking the closure must have an overriding interest likely to be prejudiced by an open hearing and the closure must not be broader than necessary to protect that interest.
The other criteria are for judges to consider reasonable alternatives to closure and make findings that support excluding the public.
Pariente wrote that judges cannot meet those requirements without conducting an inquiry on reasonable alternatives in each case and making individual findings.
Justice James Perry wrote for the majority that the partial closure called for by the law is in itself a reasonable alternative to excluding all members of the public. As for the supportive findings, Perry wrote that “we caution trial courts to ensure that the statute is in fact applicable to the case before them and is properly applied.”
Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quincy and Jorge Labarga concurred with Perry’s opinion. Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justice Charles Canady did not explain why they agreed only with its result.