Tuesday, March 4, 2014
C.A. Rejects Blanket Order Opening Juvenile Proceedings to Press
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The presiding judge of a juvenile court cannot issue a blanket order opening dependency proceedings to news media, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Los Angeles Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash’s 2012 order permitting print media coverage in the absence of a specific objection and showing of good cause to bar coverage violates Welfare and Institutions Code §346, Div. Eight held. The statute closes dependency proceedings to the press and public unless the bench officer finds that access should be given to a person with “a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.”
Nash, who is not running for a new term and will leave the court by the end of the year after more than 28 years on the bench and more than 16 heading the juvenile court, issued the order 26 months ago. The order was issued, by its terms, to “provide guidance…as to how the [court] will apply” §346.
Under the order, members of the press are “deemed to have a legitimate interest in the work of the court” and are permitted to attend hearings “unless there is a reasonable likelihood that such access will be harmful to the child’s or children’s best interests.”
If any party objects to press access, the order provides, the court is to consider the objections based on such factors as the age of the child or children involved and the facts of the specific case, “consistent with the overriding purpose of the proceeding to protect the child and advance his or her best interests.” The order specifically provides that the press is not to be excluded unless and until an objection is made and the bench officer has made a determination that the media presence is not in the children’s best interests.
In an early test of the order, one week after the blanket order was issued, counsel for a minor in a case before Judge Rudolph Diaz objected to the presence of a reporter and an attorney for the Los Angeles Times. The attorney’s client was one of five children who had removed from their family home based on allegations of spousal and child abuse by an alcoholic father and the failure of the mother to protect the children.
The objecting attorney, from Children’s Law Center, which has consistently objected to the blanket order, said the facts of the case were “particularly brutal” and that the 15-year-old client did not want to discuss private information in front of strangers. Diaz decided to allow media presence, saying the minor’s counsel had not shown a likelihood of harm to the child.
The Court of Appeal denied writ review of the order, and the case proceeded, with the children being found dependent and placed with their mother, with reunification services to be provided by the Department of Children and Family Services.
The minor appealed the order allowing media coverage, which the court found to be an appealable order on the ground that it “substantially affects the rights of a party” under Code of Civil Procedure §906.
Justice Elizabeth Grimes, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the blanket order is inconsistent with the statute because it creates a presumption in favor of allowing media coverage, whereas the text and history of the statute suggest the Legislature intended the opposite presumption.
The justice acknowledged that the presumption in favor of closure may not have been uniformly applied in recent years, as reductions in court staffing may have resulted in a situation where no attention is paid to the witnesses, lawyers, or parties from other cases who may be present in a courtroom, or that judges may simply be permitting spectators to be present, absent an objection in a particular case.
But nothing in §346 or in the Rules of Court, Grimes said, “supports a rule of law that a child has the burden to discover the identity of strangers in the courtroom and voice an objection before the media may be excluded.”
She went on to say:
“In summary, we recognize that the legislative history suggests that juvenile courts should actively encourage greater participation by the press….But balancing of the competing interests…must come before the press is admitted.”
“There may be merit in effecting the reforms provided in the blanket order, but it is not the role of the judiciary to provide a more open system of dependency adjudications. The Legislature has spoken with section 346, and it is for the Legislature, not the courts, to effect changes to the system it has put in place.”
Justice Madeleine Flier concurred in the opinion, while Presiding Justice Tricia Bigelow dissented as to appealability.
The case is In re A.L., 14 S.O.S. 1101.
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