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State high court upholds trial court's closure of juvenile court proceedings

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WEST VIRGINIA--In mid-July, the state Supreme Court of Appeals in Charleston, the state's highest court, unanimously upheld a trial court's…

WEST VIRGINIA–In mid-July, the state Supreme Court of Appeals in Charleston, the state’s highest court, unanimously upheld a trial court’s order closing a case concerning the suspension of a student by the school board and sealing juvenile education records because it found a compelling public policy of protecting the confidentiality of juvenile information in all court proceedings exists in the state.

The court noted that in West Virginia, civil and criminal court proceedings and court records are presumptively open. However, it held that there are circumstances in which court records may be sealed and court proceedings closed. It stated that West Virginia generally protects the confidentiality of juveniles by mandating that judicial proceedings and court records concerning juveniles be closed to the public. It said, “the law treats juveniles differently than others.”

Stating “we are loathe to allow one of the last bastions of privacy, juvenile confidentiality, to be diminished in the least bit,” the court recognized a compelling public policy of protecting the confidentiality of juvenile information in all court proceedings.

The court said much of the evidence in this case was based on the education records of a juvenile. The court concluded that the public’s interest in the case was overwhelmingly outweighed by the state’s interest in protecting the juvenile from public dissemination of sensitive information that could be injurious. In addition, the court found that partial closure or redaction of the court record would be practically impossible because sensitive information concerning the juvenile would make up the vast amount of evidence brought forth in the action. It found no alternative to closure.

C.C.F., the juvenile, and William C. F. sued local school officials for damages and for an injunction against the school board’s use of suspensions to discipline students except in cases of violent behavior, apparently after disciplinary actions against C.C.F., in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County.

In early June, C.C.F. and William C. F. moved to close the proceeding, and the defendants did not object. The proceeding was closed to the public and members of the news media. At the conclusion of the proceeding, the judge verbally directed that the entire file in the action be sealed. At that time, he did not state his reasons for sealing the file.

Garden State Newspapers Inc., doing business as The Charleston Daily Mail, subsequently asked the Supreme Court of Appeals to prohibit Hoke from placing under seal or otherwise closing the record or any proceedings in the action until a hearing could be held on the closure. The state high court then directed the defendants to show why the newspaper’s request should not be granted. (West Virginia ex rel. Garden State Newspapers, Inc. v. Hoke; Media Counsel: James Brown, Charleston)