The jurisprudence of access to juvenile courts

May 1, 2012


Courts across the country have repeatedly declined to find a First Amendment-based right of public access to the juvenile court system. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale that such a right exists where both experience and logic favor openness, most courts have found that public scrutiny is inconsistent with the juvenile court’s aim of protecting children from the stigma and emotional trauma that can accompany publicity. Courts likewise have dismissed historical considerations, finding that a hallmark of the nation’s juvenile court system is the adjudication of matters outside the public’s gaze.

“The primary purpose has traditionally been to try and intervene with juveniles and protect them, so there has been a move to keep proceedings that involve juveniles more private than [parties] would be entitled to in an adult court system,” said Seth Berlin, a Washington, D.C., media lawyer who authored in part a treatise on newsgathering and the law that includes a comprehensive discussion of the right of access to juvenile courts nationwide.

As such, juvenile proceedings, namely delinquency proceedings, largely resemble criminal cases. However, unlike adult offenders, juveniles in most jurisdictions are not charged with crimes but rather with committing “delinquent acts.” Accordingly, juveniles do not have a trial; they have an adjudicatory hearing. If the court finds that the child committed the delinquent act, the child is not convicted but instead declared an adjudicated delinquent. Because these proceedings are technically not criminal prosecutions, courts have been free to reject the firm body of law that generally holds that criminal proceedings are presumptively open to the public.