Academic journal article Communications and the Law

Opening the Doors to Juvenile Court: Is There an Emerging Right of Public Access?

Academic journal article Communications and the Law

Opening the Doors to Juvenile Court: Is There an Emerging Right of Public Access?

Article excerpt

Three teenagers are arraigned on hate crime charges in a U.S. district court. The judge refuses to let reporters attend any hearings in the case and orders that any information that could identify the juveniles be deleted from case records before they are released to the press. A newspaper appeals the judge's order, but a federal appeals court affirms the decision and declares that juvenile proceedings in federal court are presumptively closed. Believing that important rights are at stake, the newspaper petitions for U.S. Supreme Court review, arguing that the First Amendment creates a right of public access to juvenile court proceedings.

This is precisely what happened in United States v. Three Juveniles, a case involving The Boston Globe. The Globe Newspaper Co. filed a petition for writ of certiorari in November 1995,(1) and the U.S. Supreme Court denied review on April 29, 1996.(2)

The Globe case involved the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, which allows juveniles to be tried in federal court under certain circumstances.(3) Comparatively few juvenile cases are tried in federal court; most are tried in state juvenile courts. Additionally, actions taken by several states in recent years suggest that there may be a trend towards greater public access.

Georgia, for example, amended its juvenile code in 1995 to create a presumption of public access to juvenile hearings in cases in which a juvenile is charged with certain designated felonies, such as kidnapping and attempted murder.(4) A new law enacted in Missouri that year "removes the veil of secrecy that once kept juvenile court proceedings private--in the hope that allowing names and photos in newspapers will discourage teen crime and alert school officials."(5) Also in 1995, the Indiana General Assembly passed two major laws that provide greater public access to many juvenile court proceedings and records.(6) And in 1988, Michigan created what one writer called "one of the most open juvenile court systems in the country" by granting public access to court proceedings and documents in cases involving delinquents, truants, runaways, and abuse victims.(7) These actions followed the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia and later cases, which held that the press and public have a right of access under the First Amendment to attend the criminal trials of adults.(8)

The purpose of this article is to determine whether there is an emerging right of access to juvenile court proceedings, and whether there is a First Amendment basis for such a right of access consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's public access doctrine as expressed in Richmond Newspapers and its progeny. The answers to these questions are of immense importance to those on both sides of the issue. Advocates of private hearings contend that allowing publicity would result in irreparable harms to juveniles, such as limiting a juvenile's future educational and employment opportunities. In contrast, advocates of public access point to statistics showing a dramatic increase in violent crimes committed by juveniles,(9) and argue that the public has a right to know how juvenile courts are dealing with the problem, and that holding juvenile hearings in secret breeds public mistrust of the juvenile justice system.

Additionally, the news media have been trying to gain access to juvenile courts for more than 40 years.(10) The Globe case demonstrates that juvenile court access is still an issue important to the news media, and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court denied review means that the conflict between advocates of private hearings and advocates of public access will continue to be waged at both the state and federal court levels for the foreseeable future.

I. A Brief History of Juvenile Justice in the United States

At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, the common law considered children to have reached the age of criminal responsibility at age seven. …

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