Louisville Courier-Journal

Newspapers Sue to Gain Access to Juvenile Court

Advocates have mixed reactions

By Alan Maimon and Deborah Yetter
The Courier-Journal
July 16, 2004

A group representing Kentucky’s newspapers yesterday filed a federal lawsuit seeking to open the state’s juvenile courts, arguing that the laws keeping them closed are unconstitutional.

Juvenile courts — which include criminal proceedings, truancy and cases of abuse and neglect of children — have been closed to the public for about two decades under state laws.

The suit, filed against the state by the Kentucky Press Association in U.S. District Court in Frankfort, asks a federal judge to invalidate the state laws and immediately grant public access to all juvenile court hearings and records. It argues the state constitution requires an open court system and laws seeking to restrict access are unconstitutional.

The lawsuit claims current state laws deprive newspapers of “their First Amendment rights to gather and publish news” and denies the public its “right of access to information,” a violation of the state and federal constitutions.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to see if the courts are doing their job,” said David Thompson, executive director of the state press association, whose members include The Courier-Journal. “We can’t do that if we don’t get any information.”

More than 20 states allow full or partial access to juvenile court proceedings, said Barbara White Stack, a reporter who researched the issue for a series of stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

That newspaper last year won a court decision opening juvenile court hearings involving abuse and neglect of children. Other states have begun opening juvenile court proceedings, sometimes because of court challenges, Stack said.

Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer who represents the press association and The Courier-Journal, said no one is suggesting that everything be open. “There are some things that I think everyone would agree should be closed,” he said. “But there has to be a procedure in place where there is not a mandatory closure on everything. Now, the public has no way to review what goes on in juvenile court.”

The lawsuit drew mixed reactions from people who work in the court system or with youth. They said the goal of confidentiality in the system is to protect children from stigma and shame and get them help.

“As an advocate, I would see this as a double-edged sword,” said Debra Miller, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “On the one hand, we know that public pressure and exposure is sometimes the way reforms happen. We also know that kids and families get labeled.”

Pete Schuler, chief public defender in Jefferson County, and who represents children charged with crimes, said he opposes completely opening juvenile court because children benefit from the privacy and the less formal setting.

Jefferson Family Court Judge Joan Byer, who handles cases where children have been abused and neglected, said she worried about the privacy of children if those courts were opened. But open courts could work to the benefit of children, she said.

“I have some concerns exposing children who are victims of abuse,” she said. “On the other hand, I think having open hearings does in fact make the court, the lawyers and the agencies that serve the children and families arguably more accountable.”

Bennie Ivory, executive editor of The Courier-Journal, said he supported the lawsuit.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Ivory said. “It’s time a little more light was shone on the juvenile court system.”

Ivory added that the newspaper would decide what juvenile court matters to publish on “a case by case basis.”

State Rep. Rob Wilkey, a Franklin Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was dismayed that the newspaper group took its grievances to a judge and not to state legislators.

“This is an important issue of public policy that should not be argued in the courts,” Wilkey said. “They should come to the legislature and explain why they think they should have access to these records.”

But the suit asserts that state laws restricting access to juvenile court proceedings violate the separation of powers provisions in the Kentucky Constitution that allow for courts to make their own rules and procedures concerning hearings and records.

Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Program on Youth Justice for the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington research and policy group, said juvenile courts in recent years have been moving toward more open proceedings. “The consequences are usually less severe than people fear,” he said, citing Utah, which opened its juvenile court system 10 years ago. “Everyone was worried about the rush of publicity. Usually that doesn’t happen.”

Butts said opening juvenile courts can serve to make systems more accountable because they are under scrutiny. But it also allows the press to focus on the most sensational cases and the worst crimes — without taking on the more complex job of looking at how well the system serves youths and families.

In Pennsylvania, the Juvenile Court Judges Commission supported the decision to open cases involving abuse and neglect, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the commission.

“There’s a real opportunity to educate the public and hold the system accountable by opening up certain proceedings,” he said.
_________________________________

Copyright 2004 The Louisville Courier-Journal