The Criminal Court Audience in a Post-Trial World

60 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2014 Last revised: 17 Jun 2015

Date Written: June 1, 2014


Legal scholars today criticize the lack of public participation in the criminal justice system as a barrier to democratic accountability, legitimacy, and fairness. When searching for solutions, these critiques bypass consideration of the audience members who attend criminal court each day – people who fill courtrooms to watch the cases in which their friends, family, and community members have been either victimized or accused of a crime. This is a mistake, for the constitutional function of the audience is one uniquely suited to help restore public participation and accountability in a world without juries.

The Constitution protects the democratic function of the local audience through both the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and the First Amendment right of the public to attend criminal court. This Article argues that these rights apply with full force in the routine criminal courtroom, in which arraignments, pleas, and sentencings, rather than trials, are taking place. Recognizing and enforcing the constitutional protection of the audience will require local criminal courts to grapple with widespread issues of public exclusion from the courtroom. Doing so has the potential to play a part in reinvigorating the lost connection of the public to the realities of routine criminal justice, linking a generally disempowered population to mechanisms of government accountability and social change.

Keywords: criminal procedure, the right to a public trial, plea bargaining, public participation, First Amendment

Suggested Citation

Simonson, Jocelyn, The Criminal Court Audience in a Post-Trial World (June 1, 2014). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 127, 2014, Available at SSRN:

Jocelyn Simonson (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

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