Thursday, September 5, 2013
C.A. Overturns Order for Release of Commitment Trial Transcripts
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Christopher Sorenson pled not guilty by reason of insanity to murdering his mother.
The media and prosecutors did not have a constitutional right of access to the transcripts of two trials held on a petition to involuntarily commit a person to a mental hospital, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices overturned Monterey Superior Court Judge Mark E. Hood’s order, which they had previously stayed, for release of the transcripts in Christopher Sorenson’s two separate trials held under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. The transcripts might still be unsealed, however, in whole or in part, upon a showing of good cause or waiver, Justice Miguel Márquez explained in a footnote to his opinion for the court.
Accused of Murder
Sorenson is accused of having murdered his mother, Salinas piano teacher Janet Sorenson, in December 2011, just days after the jury in his second LPS trial found that he was not gravely mentally ill within the meaning of the statute. Prosecution and media requests for access to the transcripts, made right after the murder, were rejected by the presiding judge on the ground that LPS proceedings were “deemed confidential.”
Early last year, however, prosecutors, as well as the Monterey County Herald, filed formal motions for release of the transcripts. In May of last year, Hood issued an order granting access to the transcripts on the ground that the judge who conducted the trials treated them as public without objection, while denying access to other records in the case.
Sorenson then filed his writ petition, arguing that the order violated his constitutional right to privacy as well as the LPS Act. The moving parties responded that the order was supported by the constitutional and statutory rights of access to court proceedings.
While the writ proceedings were pending, the criminal case went to a preliminary hearing, resulting in an order last October that Sorenson be bound over for trial. In February of this year, he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and waived various rights, including the right to confidentiality with respect to the trial transcripts and certain medical reports that were part of the LPS proceedings.
Motion to Dismiss
In April, the prosecution moved to dismiss the writ petition on the ground that the insanity plea and waiver rendered the issue moot, and Sorenson subsequently requested dismissal as well. But the court declined to dismiss, citing the continuing public interest in the constitutional and statutory issues.
Márquez, writing yesterday for the court, concluded that the qualified First Amendment right of access to “ordinary” civil proceedings, as set out in decisions of the U.S. and California supreme courts, does not apply to LPS jury trials, which may result in loss of the conservatee’s personal freedom for an indefinite and extended period of time.
Such proceedings are not “ordinary,” the justice said, but are special proceedings that have not historically been open to the public and as to which a right of public access would not serve utilitarian considerations, such as enhancing the accuracy and validity of the truth-finding process, to the same extent as in typical civil and criminal proceedings.
The justice went on to say that the LPS Act, by creating a presumption in favor of nonpublic hearings, establishes an exception to Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 124, which declares that court proceedings are open to the public in the absence of a statutory exception.
Márquez further concluded that the record did not support the finding that the parties effectively agreed that Sorenson’s LPS trials be public.
The case is Sorenson v. Superior Court (People), H038295.
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