When the State Is Silent: An Analysis of AEDPA’s Adjudication Requirement

Introduction

Ernest Sutton Bell was convicted of sexual misconduct following a closed criminal trial. Despite Supreme Court precedent that on-the-record findings as to the necessity of closing a court proceeding are required before doing so and a strong presumption that defendants have the constitutional right to a public trial, the judge failed to make any explicit findings as to his reasons before closing the courtroom during Mr. Bell’s trial. After closing the courtroom, Mr. Bell was convicted based largely on an account by the sixteen-year-old victim. ┬áThe only members of the public present during her testimony were the victim’s family and friends, who grew so vocal that the judge was forced to verbally reprimand them. Mr. Bell appealed his conviction, claiming his right to a fair trial had been violated because he was convicted in a closed proceeding, making the issues and testimony in his case unavailable to public scrutiny. His claim was strong given the Supreme Court’s previous ruling that a judge’s failure to explicitly determine the necessity of closing a trial was considered an abuse of discretion requiring per se reversal. Despite the prevailing law, the North Carolina state trial court denied Mr. Bell’s petition in a single sentence, stating that he had “failed to state a claim.” When he petitioned for further review, the state appellate court affirmed the decision in another single statement: “Petition for Writ of Certiorari is denied.”

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