Newspaper Wins Access to Parents' Trial in Juvenile Court
In early November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, the state's highest court, held that a newspaper should have had full access to court cases in which Robert and Andrea Berkowitz of Sharon were fined for serving alcohol to minors at a party at their home.
The court held that the lower court's order, which prevented the press from fully reporting on the cases, violated free-press rights and amounted to an "unlawful prior restraint."
Robert and Andrea Berkowitz were charged in June 1997 with 10 counts of serving alcohol to a minor and with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after they allegedly served beer and liquor to their son and his friends at their home. The case against them was transferred out of the general division in August 1997 based on a state law that gives juvenile courts jurisdiction over charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Judge Mary McCallum, of the juvenile division of the District Court in Stoughton, closed her courtroom during the first pretrial hearing in the case in early September 1997. In Massachusetts, juvenile court proceedings generally are closed to the public, except for cases in which minors are charged with specific serious crimes.
In late September 1997, The (Quincy) Patriot Ledger filed a motion in the juvenile court to intervene for the limited purpose of asserting its right of access to the trial, preliminary hearings and to the records of all proceedings. The newspaper argued that the court's ruling was an unconstitutional restriction on public access to criminal trials of adults. Following a hearing in mid-- October 1997, McCallum issued an order opening the trial and records to the public but forbidding the news media from publishing any identifying information about the minors testifying in court. The newspaper appealed.
In late October 1997, a mid-level appellate court in Boston upheld McCallum's order. Relying on a 1996 Massachusetts case, the appeals court held that maintaining the confidentiality of juvenile proceedings was a compelling state interest that overrode the public's First Amendment right of access to the proceedings. The Patriot Ledger thereafter appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which denied the newspaper's request to delay the trial until the appeal is resolved.
On appeal, the newspaper first argued that it had a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials and that such a right could not be abridged absent a finding that closure was necessary to preserve higher values. The newspaper claimed that the trial court's order did not serve a compelling state interest because no minors were charged in the Berkowitz case.
The newspaper reminded the court that a Massachusetts statute requiring courts to exclude the public from courtrooms while underage rape victims testified was previously struck down by the United States Supreme Court as unconstitutional. …