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Just two reporters were allowed inside a Georgia courtroom to serve as the eyes and ears of the public when jury selection began for the men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery. Pandemic restrictions also kept reporters and the public out of the courtroom during the sex-trafficking trial of music star R. Kelly.

And in an Ohio courtroom, a federal judge relegated the press to an overflow room to listen to an audio feed for the trial of a Chinese national charged with trying to steal trade secrets from U.S. companies.

A year-and-a-half into the coronavirus pandemic, courts across the U.S. are still grappling with how to balance public health concerns with the constitutional rights of a defendant and the public to have an open trial. There’s no standard solution. Some courts are still functioning entirely virtually. Others are back in person. And many are allowing only limited public access.

“This is a fundamental constitutional right that the public has — to have open courts and to be able to see what’s happening in real time in a courtroom,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which has prodded California courts to improve public access during the pandemic.

COVID-19 space constraints have led judges across the U.S. to exclude or limit public and media attendance at trials.

During Kelly’s trial, which concluded last month with his conviction, a federal judge in New York barred the press and public from the courtroom because jurors were sitting six feet apart in the gallery normally used by observers. Onlookers could watch a live video feed in an overflow courtroom, but it offered no view of the jury and only limited images of the defendant, witnesses and exhibits. At one point, prosecutors played a recording that jurors listened to with headphones, with no audio available for the press and public.

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