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Court declines to rule on access to juvenile proceedings

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SIXTH CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   July 11, 2006

Court declines to rule on access to juvenile proceedings

  • A newspaper association cannot ask a federal court to rule on whether four state access laws violate the First Amendment until it has been denied access by a state court under one of the four laws, a federal appeals court ruled.

July 11, 2006  ·   A Kentucky Press Association case challenging the constitutionality of four laws that limit public access to juvenile court proceedings must be dismissed because the state courts have not interpreted the laws, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) ruled Friday.

“KPA’s First Amendment claim rests upon the mere speculation that the Kentucky courts would interpret Kentucky law in a way that completely denies the media access to juvenile proceedings and records,” Judge Alice M. Batchelder wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. The Kentucky courts “could well render an interpretation of these statutes that provides for the access that KPA seeks and thus avoids the constitutional issue presented in this case,” she wrote.

In judging it was too soon to decide the press association’s claim, the appeals court concluded that the harm the press association complained about — the media being shut out of juvenile proceedings — would not necessarily happen since it is unknown whether Kentucky courts would permit the media access.

While one state law denies general access to juvenile proceedings, it lets judges grant access to individuals who have a “direct interest in the case or in the work of the court,” according to the court ruling. Likewise, the law denying public access to juvenile records lets judges disclose records “when ordered by the court for good cause.”

The appeals court also reasoned that no harm would be caused if the press association was denied relief since the statute had been in place since 1987, and the press association admitted it was not trying to seek access to any pending juvenile cases.

The press association in July 2004 asked the U.S. District Court in Frankfort, Kentucky, to strike four state laws as unconstitutional. One law excludes the public from juvenile hearings; one excludes the public from juveniles’ mental, medical, and law enforcement records; one seals access to all records pertaining to juvenile proceedings when a juvenile meets prerequisites for expungement; and one requires confidentiality for juvenile records except for people involved in the case.

Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood dismissed the case, ruling that the press association had failed to show it had a First Amendment right of access to juvenile records and proceedings based on the history of confidentiality surrounding such proceedings.

The appeals court concluded that it was premature to consider whether the press association had proven a constitutional right of access and it sent the case back to Hood, instructing him to dismiss it on that ground.

(Kentucky Press Assoc. v. Kentucky; Counsel for media: Jon L. Fleischaker, Dinsmore & Shohl, Louisville, Ky.)SB

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