See you in court: City clarifies court proceedings open to the public

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, June 7, 2023

“They’re not letting the public into the court.”

Brookhaven Board of Aldermen attorney Bobby Moak made the statement to the board and Mayor Joe Cox Tuesday night, after reading the following from The Rules of Criminal Procedure of Mississippi.

All proceedings “shall be open to the public unless the court finds, upon application of the defendant, that an open proceeding presents a danger to the defendant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury” (MRCrP 10.3).

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The court can only be closed to the public if there is reason to believe a fair trail can’t be obtained or there is a danger of imminent harm, Moak added.

The state’s Constitution provides that in prosecutions for rape, adultery, fornication, sodomy or a crime against nature, “the court may, in its discretion, exclude from the courtroom all persons except such as are necessary in the conduct of the trial” (Miss.Const. art. 3, § 26).

The Mississippi Supreme Court has also held that the presumption of open access to a trial can only be opposed by demonstrating that closure “is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” The reasoning must demonstrate “specific, on-the-record findings of fact which show in what manner the coverage will cause a party to lose the right to a fair trail” (Miss. 2005).

Brookhaven’s Municipal Court Judge is Louwlynn Vanzetta “Van” Williams, who was sworn into office in October 2021.

The City Prosecutor is Greg Malta, and the court-appointed defense attorney is Bobby Moak.

City Court Clerk Michelle Burgess said she was unaware of anyone being turned away from attending court.

“It’s usually just the ones that have a trial and the witnesses that are involved in the trial,” she said.

It’s not a matter of people being kept out of the court, but no one showing up to attend, she said. “Not since I’ve been hired.”

Moak clarified his statement Wednesday.

It was reported that spectators were not allowed in the courtroom, and I think a lot of that is because of the limited seating capacity in the city courtroom,” Moak said. “When the Circuit Court courtroom is utilized that is not an issue. But just to be clear, and to make sure everyone is clear, the policy is as written and follows the Constitution, that all courts are open except if the court orders such closed for a narrowly-tailored reason, such as possibly a defendant may not get a fair trail with an expanded visitor section, etc.”

Municipal courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes, municipal ordinances, and city traffic violations. Municipal judges may conduct initial appearances in which defendants are advised of charges being filed, as well as bond hearings, and preliminary hearings.