Update (July 24, 2020): On July 24, a federal judge granted the Hartford Courant’s motion for a preliminary injunction, ordering the unsealing of all judicial records in cases transferred from juvenile court to adult criminal court. The order applies to cases transferred before the judge’s ruling. It also enjoins court officials from automatically sealing newly filed judicial records involving the transfer of juvenile cases to adult court.
The Hartford Courant is challenging the constitutionality of a new Connecticut law that shields courtroom proceedings and judicial records from the public in juvenile felony cases transferred to adult criminal court.
In a federal lawsuit filed on Dec. 11 on behalf of the Courant by attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and William S. Fish Jr. of Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP, the Courant argues that the Juvenile Transfer Act, which went into effect in October 2019, creates a new “statutory secrecy scheme” that violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Connecticut Constitution.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut to declare the law unconstitutional and order court officials to unseal judicial records related to juvenile cases that have been transferred to adult criminal court. The Courant is taking this extraordinary step to protect the interests of its readers.
“The Juvenile Transfer Act creates a significant impediment to The Hartford Courant’s ability to inform its readers about matters of the utmost public interest and concern, and prevents [it] from engaging in the kind of comprehensive, investigative reporting that the paper is known for and that serves the public interest,” Andrew Julien, the Courant’s publisher and editor-in-chief, said in a sworn statement submitted to the court.
Under the Juvenile Transfer Act, defendants between the ages of 15 and 18 who are charged with certain felonies and whose cases are transferred to adult criminal court will be shielded from public view. Even though these transferred juveniles will be tried as adults, the law stipulates that any records of the proceedings “shall be confidential … unless and until the court or jury renders a verdict or a guilty plea is entered.” The law prohibits members of the press and the public from attending courtroom proceedings or inspecting court records in such cases.
“Openness is a bedrock feature of our criminal justice system. Connecticut’s Juvenile Transfer Act is flatly inconsistent with the longstanding and constitutionally guaranteed right of reporters and other members of the public to attend criminal proceedings and to review court dockets and other records in criminal cases,” said Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend.
The Courant’s complaint points to pending cases of significant public interest that appear to have been sealed since the new law took effect on Oct. 1. They include the high-profile prosecution of 59-year-old Michael Skakel, a relative of the Kennedy family who was convicted of the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley in Greenwich, Connecticut, when he was 15 years old.
Skakel was originally tried as an adult and convicted in 2000. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 2018 due to ineffective counsel, and the state is now considering re-trying Skakel. As of Oct. 1, the Courant has been unable to access court records concerning his case.
“In the event Skakel is retried,” Julien said, “The Hartford Courant and other members of the press and public will be barred from attending any criminal proceeding in his case and from accessing any of the associated judicial records or docket information, permitting a 59-year-old public figure to be tried in complete secrecy in connection with a murder that has captured national attention for more than 40 years.”
The Hartford Courant is the largest daily newspaper in the state of Connecticut and is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States. The Courant is owned by Tribune Publishing, headquartered in Chicago, Ill.
Media contact: Emily Lukasiewicz
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo courtesy of the Hartford Courant