VIII. Proceedings involving minors
Certain proceedings involving minors are closed by statute or rule. For instance, all proceedings under the Child Protective Act—those involving allegations of abuse, abandonment, neglect or homelessness of a child (I.C. § 16-1610(1)(b))—are closed and all records are sealed to protect the minor children at issue.
Although “juvenile proceedings have traditionally been closed to the public in most jurisdictions,” the Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that the “constitutional presumption of openness applies to juvenile dependency matters.” In re M.B., 819 A.2d 59, 61 (Pa. Super. 2003); see In re J.B., 39 A.3d 421, 434 (Pa. Super. 2012) (recognizing that the same presumption applies to delinquency proceedings). But juvenile proceedings may be closed “to prevent parties’ embarrassment and protect privacy interests.” Id. at 63 (citing R.W. v. Hampe, 626 A.2d 1218, 1222 (Pa. Super. 1993)). For example, in In re J.B., the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the press from a juvenile delinquency proceeding. See 39 A.3d at 434. In doing so, the Superior Court reasoned that there was a compelling interest in protecting the privacy and psychological development of the child – who was under twelve years of age when the underlying criminal offense took place – and that no less restrictive means were available to serve those interests. See In re J.B., 39 A.3d at 432-34. The Superior Court has also held that “protecting minors from the trauma and embarrassment of testifying in public is, in and of itself, a compelling state interest under a First Amendment analysis.” In re M.B., 819 A.2d at 64 (citing Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 607-08 (1982)); see also Hampe, 626 A.2d at 1222 (recognizing “the salutary reasons of protecting the privacy interests of minors”).
Despite these holdings, Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act provides detailed rules on when juvenile hearings and records may be closed. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6336. Under that Act, juvenile hearings in Pennsylvania are closed unless the hearing is:
1. To declare a person in contempt of court.
2. Pursuant to a petition alleging delinquency where the child was 14 years old or older at the time of the alleged conduct and the alleged conduct would be felony if done by adult.
3. Pursuant to a petition alleging delinquency where the child was 12 years old at the time of the alleged conduct and the alleged conduct is: murder, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, arson, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, kidnapping, rape, robbery, or attempt to commit or conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing.
Even if those circumstances are present, the proceedings may be closed to the extent of any agreement between the child and the attorney for the Commonwealth. § 6336(d), (e).
Notwithstanding the above, the court may admit “any other person . . . [with] a proper interest in the proceeding . . . .” § 6336(d). The comments to the statute confirm that the court may, in its discretion, admit members of the media into hearings that would otherwise be closed to the general public. See § 6336 cmt. If the media has access to these hearings, it should be allowed to publish whatever is learned at the hearings; an order to the contrary would constitute a prior restraint. Nevertheless, the notes to the statute state: “This section as drawn permits the court in its discretion to admit news reporters. This is frequently done with the understanding that the identity of the cases observed will not be published, a procedure generally satisfactory to the news media.”
In In re J.B., an intervenor brought a facial constitutional challenge to the closure provisions of the Juvenile Act under the Pennsylvania Constitution. In re J.B., 39 A.3d at 436. The Superior Court rejected that challenge, holding that the intervenor failed to provide any “meaningful discussion of, or citation to, relevant legal authority” in support of its argument. Id. at 437. The court then held that the challenged provisions were not facially unconstitutional because they did not provide for a blanket closure rule. Instead, they allow the court, in its discretion, to admit members of the media into a hearing. See id. (citing § 6336 cmt.).
In addition, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted a policy governing access to case records, including criminal case records. See 204 Pa. Code § 213.81. Under that policy certain categories of documents and information are deemed confidential, including:
- minors’ names and dates of birth, except when a minor is charged as a defendant in a criminal matter;
- minors’ educational records;
- medical/psychological records;
- children and youth services’ records; and
- information to which access is otherwise restricted by federal law, state law, or state court rule.