In State v. Brimmer, the Iowa Supreme Court was again divided in addressing a challenge to a district court’s application of the Iowa Supreme Court’s COVID-19 supervisory orders, this time addressing the right to public trial.

Citing COVID-19 concerns, a Dubuque County judge closed the courtroom doors to Ronald Brimmer’s trial for second-degree sexual abuse. A jury convicted Brimmer as charged following trial.

On appeal, Brimmer challenged the evidence as insufficient to support his conviction and contended that the district court violated his right to a public trial by closing the trial to the public and his family members.

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held sufficient evidence supported Brimmer’s conviction. From there, the court’s views diverged.

A four-member majority of the Iowa Supreme Court found that the district court violated Brimmer’s right to a public trial, guaranteed under both the United States and Iowa Constitutions. Writing for the majority, Justice Oxley called the public trial right a “bedrock principle of criminal procedure.” The majority agreed that preventing the spread of COVID-19 “is unquestionably a compelling interest” that could support closing a trial to the public. It went on to find, however, that the court’s exclusion of Brimmer’s immediate family was not required to advance that interest, as there appeared to be space “for at least a limited number of people to attend while maintaining physical distancing requirements.” As the closure was not narrowly tailored to advance the compelling interest at issue, the majority found a violation of Brimmer’s public trial rights, and therefore, reversed and remanded the case for a new trial.

Justice McDonald was the sole member of the court to join in Justice Oxley’s opinion that a new trial was required on the additional basis that the district court failed to consider reasonable alternatives to completely closing the courtroom, such as a livestream video or audio feed.

Justice May, in a special concurrence joined by Justice McDermott, highlighted the extent of the district court’s closure, namely the denial of Brimmer’s request that his mother be allowed to attend in person.

Justice Mansfield concurred in part and dissented in part, joined by Chief Justice Christensen and Justice Waterman. Justice Mansfield agreed that sufficient evidence supported the conviction but disagreed that a new trial was warranted based on a violation of Brimmer’s public trial rights. He noted that Brimmer was not interested in a livestreaming option, and in fact, hadn’t advanced any argument to that effect on appeal. He also found no error in the district court’s decision, after careful consideration, to disallow in-person attendance.

The opinion highlights the division amongst the justices over the extent to which courts can deviate from normal operating procedures during exigent circumstances.