May 01, 2014

Blanket Order Granting Media Access to Dependency Court Hearings Was Invalid

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re A.L., 2014 WL 808868 (Cal. Ct. App.). 

Blanket court order granting media access to juvenile dependency court proceedings violated California statute. Order substituted a presumption of openness for statute’s longstanding presumption of closure, removed judge’s role in determining whether to grant media access, and placed burden on child to object to media access and prove harm. 

A child appealed a juvenile court order allowing the Los Angeles Times to attend the child’s dependency proceedings. The juvenile court complied with a blanket order from the juvenile court presiding judge providing that members of the press be given access to dependency hearings unless it would harm the child’s best interests. The order also stated that access may not be denied until an objection is made and the objecting party has shown it is likely access will harm the child.

The presiding judge’s blanket order, issued in January 2012, provided access to members of the press at juvenile dependency court hearings. The order created an exception when it is shown that permitting such access will harm the subject child’s interests. Any party may object to media access. The court may not deny access until it has found, based on the evidence, that a member or the public lacks a legitimate interest in the case, or if it finds access must be denied after balancing such considerations as the child’s age, nature of allegations, and the extent of and effect of publicity on the children and family.

This case involved a 15-year-old girl and her four younger siblings. They had been detained after the oldest child was assaulted by her stepfather. A Times reporter and attorney attended a pretrial conference in the case. The child’s attorney objected and sought a continuance to brief the issue of confidentiality. The court set a briefing schedule.

The child’s brief argued the blanket order granting media access was invalid and should be determined on a case-by-case basis. It also requested that the court conduct a closed hearing, claiming that permitting press access during arguments about sensitive issues in the case would defeat the purpose of the hearing since sensitive information would be made public.

A separate objection argued the facts in this case involved a brutal assault of the oldest child by her stepfather. At age 15, she was sensitive to releasing private information about the assault to the public. It further argued that she would be present at the hearing and had a right to participate without the threat of releasing private details and personal information to the public.

The court ruled the child had not met the burden to show that press access would result in a likelihood of suffering harm. The child sought review of the ruling, which was denied.

Later, after the children were declared dependent and placed with their mother under agency supervision, the oldest child appealed the ruling permitting press access. 

The California Court of Appeal for the Second District reversed. It concluded the blanket order violated California Welfare and Institutions Code section 346. Section 346 governs public and media access at dependency court hearings. The provision restricts the public from attending juvenile court hearings unless requested by a parent or guardian and agreed to by the minor who is the subject of the petition. However, a judge may admit individuals deemed to have a “direct or legitimate interest” in the proceedings.

The appellate court found the blanket order created a paradigm shift. Section 346 restricts public access to dependency hearings unless a judge deems access should be allowed because a person has a legitimate interest in a case. The blanket order, on the other hand, grants public access unless a party shows such access will harm the child. The order eliminates the judge’s role in deciding whether to admit the press, and places the burden on the child to object to and prove harm. Rather than apply requirements of section 346, the blanket order substitutes a presumption of openness for a presumption of closure. 

The court also considered the burden of proof, noting that the blanket order requires the party objecting to press access to show harm to the child if access is allowed. Section 346, however, creates a presumption that dependency proceedings are closed to the press and public; the press or public must seek admission to a hearing and has the burden to show access should be granted. The press must also persuade the court to rule in its favor after considering competing interests.

The court concluded that balancing competing interests and considering the unique case facts must come before allowing press access to dependency proceedings. It explained that private hearings were required by statute for good reason—to protect minors from embarrassment, emotional trauma, and added stress that could interfere with reunification and healing of the family.