A federal judge has ordered Connecticut courts to unseal all judicial records in cases transferred from juvenile court to criminal court, an important ruling that will help the public and press hold the state’s court system accountable.
Judge Michael P. Shea of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut issued his ruling last week in conjunction with the Hartford Courant’s challenge to the state’s Juvenile Transfer Act, which shields judicial records and proceedings from the public in juvenile felony cases transferred to criminal court until a verdict is reached or a guilty plea is entered. While not the final disposition of the Hartford Courant’s challenge to the law, the Court’s preliminary injunction ensures that its sealing provisions will not be enforced as the lawsuit is pending.
The Court held that the law, which went into effect in October 2019, likely violates the First Amendment’s right of access to court proceedings, a determination that bodes very well for the forthcoming final determination on the question of the law’s constitutionality. Judge Shea’s order requires the unsealing of cases tried before the ruling and prevents Connecticut courts from automatically sealing newly filed judicial records involving the transfer of juvenile cases to criminal court.
“As with any criminal proceeding,” the judge wrote in his opinion, “public scrutiny of the Transferred Matters enhances quality, protects integrity, fosters an appearance of fairness, heightens respect, and permits the public to participate in and serve as a check upon the judicial process.”
Reporters Committee attorneys, alongside local counsel from Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP, are representing the Hartford Courant in its challenge to the Juvenile Transfer Act.
“The district court’s ruling is an important victory for the press and the public,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The decision ensures that defendants under the age of 18 that the State of Connecticut criminally prosecutes as adults for the most serious crimes will not be tried in secret, and that is exactly what the First Amendment requires.”
In his ruling, Judge Shea acknowledges the importance of protecting the privacy of vulnerable youths. However, he wrote that “the confidentiality provisions of the Juvenile Transfer Act are not narrowly tailored to achieve that goal because they reverse the presumption of openness, they sweep too broadly, their exceptions do not align with the State’s stated goals, and they fail to take account of less restrictive alternatives to protect the privacy of juvenile defendants.”
While the law prevents access to proceedings and seals judicial records, other Connecticut statutes allow for the disclosure of the defendant’s name and photograph when juveniles are arrested for capital felonies. Moreover, as the judge’s ruling points out, “the Act seals records only until a verdict is reached or a guilty plea entered, making the records publicly available during post-verdict proceedings, sentencing, and appeal.”
Judge Shea’s ruling notes that the Juvenile Transfer Act would shield the records of defendants who are no longer juveniles. He specifically highlighted the high-profile case of 59-year-old Michael Skakel, who was publicly prosecuted for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley when he was 15 years old. Skakel, who is a relative of the Kennedy family, was originally tried as an adult and convicted in 2000. However, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 2018 due to ineffective counsel. The state is considering re-trying Skakel, but any new records related to his case have been sealed as of Oct. 1, 2019, because of the Juvenile Transfer Act.
The judge’s ruling takes issue with Connecticut court officials’ failure to explain why they can’t protect the privacy of juveniles without mandating blanket sealing of all records. He suggests they consider redacting records or using pseudonyms.
“To be sure, in some cases, redaction or the use of pseudonyms may provide inadequate protection, and full sealing of court records may be necessary,” Judge Shea wrote in his opinion. “But the First Amendment requires that a judge weighing the unique facts of each case make that determination on a case-by-case basis.”
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.