Coy v. Iowa

487 U.S. 1012

Case Year: 1988

Case Ruling: 6-2, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Scalia

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brennan, Marshall, O'Connor, Stevens, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: O'Connor


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Blackmun

Joiner(s): Rehnquist

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Whether the Confrontation Clause confers an absolute right on all defendants to face their accusers in open court is a controversial issue. In rape or child abuse trials, such meetings can cause emotional stress or damage, especially for children. States have responded to this situation by devising ways for children to testify under oath without being in the actual presence of the defendant. Some states have used closed-circuit television so that a child can testify and be cross-examined in another room while the session is transmitted into the courtroom. Other states have screened child witnesses so that they cannot see the defendants. The Court addressed one such alternative in Coy v. Iowa (1988), striking down a system in which the child witness testified behind a screen. The child could not see the defendant, but the defendant could see the dim outline of the witness and hear the testimony. This arrangement, according to a six-justice majority, was insufficient to satisfy the Confrontation Clause.



Appellant was convicted of two counts of lascivious acts with a child after a jury trial in which a screen placed between him and the two complaining witnesses blocked him from their sight. Appellant contends that this procedure, authorized by state statute, violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him....

The Sixth Amendment gives a criminal defendant the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him."...We have never doubted ... that the Confrontation Clause guarantees the defendant a face-to-face meeting with witnesses appearing before the trier of fact....

The Sixth Amendment's guarantee of face-to-face encounter between witness and accused serves ends related both to appearances and to reality.... [T]here is something deep in human nature that regards face-to-face confrontation between accused and accuser as "essential to a fair trial in a criminal prosecution."...

The perception that confrontation is essential to fairness has persisted over the centuries because there is much truth to it. A witness "may feel quite differently when he has to repeat his story looking at the man whom he will harm greatly by distorting or mistaking the facts. He can now understand what sort of human being that man is."... It is always more difficult to tell a lie about a person "to his face" than "behind his back." In the former context, even if the lie is told, it will often be told less convincingly. The Confrontation Clause does not, of course, compel the witness to fix his eyes upon the defendant; he may studiously look elsewhere, but the trier of fact will draw its own conclusions. Thus the right to face-to-face confrontation serves much the same purpose as a less explicit component of the Confrontation Clause that we have had more frequent occasion to discuss--the right to cross-examine the accuser; both "ensur[e] the integrity of the factfinding process."... The State can hardly gainsay the profound effect upon a witness of standing in the presence of the person the witness accuses, since that is the very phenomenon it relies upon to establish the potential "trauma" that allegedly justified the extraordinary procedure in the present case. That face-to-face presence may, unfortunately, upset the truthful rape victim or abused child; but by the same token it may confound and undo the false accuser, or reveal the child coached by a malevolent adult. It is a truism that constitutional protections have costs.

The remaining question is whether the right to confrontation was in fact violated in this case. The screen at issue was specifically designed to enable the complaining witnesses to avoid viewing appellant as they gave their testimony, and the record indicates that it was successful in this objective.... It is difficult to imagine a more obvious or damaging violation of the defendant's right to a face-to-face encounter.

The State suggests that the confrontation interest at stake here was outweighed by the necessity of protecting victims of sexual abuse. It is true that we have in the past indicated that rights conferred by the Confrontation Clause are not absolute, and may give way to other important interests. The rights referred to in those cases, however, were not the right narrowly and explicitly set forth in the Clause, but rather rights that are, or were asserted to be, reasonably implicit - namely, the right to cross-examine ...; the right to exclude out-of-court statements ...; and the asserted right to face-to-face confrontation at some point in the proceedings other than the trial itself.... To hold that our determination of what implications are reasonable must take into account other important interests is not the same as holding that we can identify exceptions, in light of other important interests, to the irreducible literal meaning of the Clause: "a right to meet face to face all those who appear and give evidence at trial."... We leave for another day, however, the question whether any exceptions exist. Whatever they may be, they would surely be allowed only when necessary to further an important public policy.... The State maintains that such necessity is established here by the statute, which creates a legislatively imposed presumption of trauma. Our cases suggest, however, that even as to exceptions from the normal implications of the Confrontation Clause, as opposed to its most literal application, something more than the type of generalized finding underlying such a statute is needed when the exception is not "firmly ... rooted in our jurisprudence."... The exception created by the Iowa statute, which was passed in 1985, could hardly be viewed as firmly rooted. Since there have been no individualized findings that these particular witnesses needed special protection, the judgment here could not be sustained by any conceivable exception....

... Since [the appellant's] constitutional right to face-to-face confrontation was violated, we reverse the judgment of the Iowa Supreme Court and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


I agree with the Court that appellant's rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated in this case. I write separately only to note my view that those rights are not absolute but rather may give way in an appropriate case to other competing interests so as to permit the use of certain procedural devices designed to shield a child witness from the trauma of courtroom testimony.

Child abuse is a problem of disturbing proportions in today's society.... Many States have determined that a child victim may suffer trauma from exposure to the harsh atmosphere of the typical courtroom and have undertaken to shield the child through a variety of ameliorative measures. We deal today with the constitutional ramifications of only one such measure, but we do so against a broader backdrop. Iowa appears to be the only State authorizing the type of screen used in this case.... A full half of the States, however, have authorized the use of one-or two-way closed-circuit television. Statutes sanctioning one-way systems generally permit the child to testify in a separate room in which only the judge, counsel, technicians, and in some cases the defendant, are present. The child's testimony is broadcast into the courtroom for viewing by the jury. Two-way systems permit the child witness to see the courtroom and the defendant over a video monitor. In addition to such closed-circuit television procedures, 33 States (including 19 of the 25 authorizing closed-circuit television) permit the use of videotaped testimony, which typically is taken in the defendant's presence....

While I agree with the Court that the Confrontation Clause was violated in this case, I wish to make clear that nothing in today's decision necessarily dooms such efforts by state legislatures to protect child witnesses....Moreover, even if a particular state procedure runs afoul of the Confrontation Clause's general requirements, it may come within an exception that permits its use. There is nothing novel about the proposition that the Clause embodies a general requirement that a witness face the defendant.... [T]he Court has time and again stated that the Clause "reflects a preference for face-to-face confrontation at trial," and expressly recognized that this preference may be overcome in a particular case if close examination of "competing interests" so warrants... In short, our precedents recognize a right to face-to-face confrontation at trial, but have never viewed that right as absolute. I see no reason to do so now and would recognize exceptions here as we have elsewhere.

Thus, I would permit use of a particular trial procedure that called for something other than face-to-face confrontation if that procedure was necessary to further an important public policy.... The protection of child witnesses is, in my view and in the view of a substantial majority of the States, just such a policy. The primary focus therefore likely will be on the necessity prong. I agree with the Court that more than the type of generalized legislative finding of necessity present here is required. But if a court makes a case-specific finding of necessity, as is required by a number of state statutes, ... our cases suggest that the strictures of the Confrontation Clause may give way to the compelling state interest of protecting child witnesses. Because nothing in the Court's opinion conflicts with this approach and this conclusion, I join it.


... Indisputably, the state interests behind the Iowa statute are of considerable importance. Between 1976 and 1985, the number of reported incidents of child maltreatment in the United States rose from 0.67 million to over 1.9 million, with an estimated 11.7 percent of those cases in 1985 involving allegations of sexual abuse.... The prosecution of these child sex-abuse cases poses substantial difficulties because of the emotional trauma frequently suffered by child witnesses who must testify about the sexual assaults they have suffered.... Although research in this area is still in its early stages, studies of children who have testified in court indicate that such testimony is "associated with increased behavioural disturbance in children."... Thus, the fear and trauma associated with a child's testimony in front of the defendant have two serious identifiable consequences: They may cause psychological injury to the child, and they may so overwhelm the child as to prevent the possibility of effective testimony, thereby undermining the truth-finding function of the trial itself. Because of these effects, I agree with the concurring opinion, ... that a State properly may consider the protection of child witnesses to be an important public policy. In my view, this important public policy, embodied in the Iowa statute that authorized the use of the screening device, outweighs the narrow Confrontation Clause right at issue here - the "preference" for having the defendant within the witness' sight while the witness testifies.