Oct. 4, 2007 · Ohio’s highest court ruled Sept. 26 that a judge violated state court rules when he prohibited the media from photographing a juvenile murder suspect’s face without an evidentiary hearing.
The Columbus Dispatch asked a Franklin County judge to take photographs during a plea hearing for 15-year-old murder suspect Elijah Nichols last February. Judge Christopher J. Geer forbade the newspaper from photographing the defendant’s face upon his parents’ request and the newspaper asked to delay the hearing so it could notify its attorneys and obtain a hearing on the judge’s order.
Geer refused to delay the hearing and the Dispatch asked the Ohio Supreme Court to prohibit Geer from enforcing that order and from restricting media coverage in the future without notice or hearing. Though its ruling came long after Geer allowed the Nichols hearing to go forward, the high court agreed that Geer could not restrict media access to a proceeding, or to particular aspects of a proceeding, without first holding a hearing.
Justice Judith A. Lanzinger wrote for the 6-1 court that Geer’s order was “based upon unsupported findings.”
“At the very least, all parties affected must have the opportunity to respond to the possibility of any restriction, and any finding must be based upon evidence in the record,” she wrote, granting the Dispatch‘s writ of prohibition.
This was an important matter to establish, said Marion H. Little, Jr., who represented the Dispatch.
“Simply as a matter of principle, we established that where a juvenile court seeks to restrict access, they must hold an evidentiary hearing,” he said. “This may be the first decision on juvenile access that makes it clear you have to go through this process first.”
In the evidentiary hearing, the judge must find whether a reasonable basis exists that the media’s presence could harm the defendant or endanger the fairness of the matter; that the potential for harm outweighs the benefit of public access and that no reasonable alternatives existed.
Little noted that degrees of access to juvenile courts are not always a clear-cut matter. “Within Ohio, it varies a great deal,” he said. “For juvenile courts in larger cities with the presence of a stronger daily newspaper, the media is much more vigilant in ensuring access is granted. Those courts are much more attuned to the case law.”
The court rejected the Dispatch‘s assertion that it had a constitutional right to photograph the proceedings, stating there is “no constitutional right of access to juvenile delinquency proceedings.”
The dissenting vote, from Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, argued that the rule was intended to govern adult proceedings and should not have been applied to a juvenile hearing.
(State ex rel. Dispatch v. Geer; Media Counsel: Marion H. Little, Jr., Zeiger, Tigges & Little, Columbus) — Corinna Zarek