Free Speech

Juvenile Cases Transferred to Ordinary Criminal Court Can't Be Categorically Sealed

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Juvenile cases have historically been litigated confidentially. Ordinary criminal cases have historically been litigated openly, and the First Amendment has been read as protecting that openness. What should happen when serious juvenile cases are transferred to ordinary criminal court? In today's Hartford Courant Co. v. Carroll, the Second Circuit (in an opinion by Judge Denny Chin, joined by Judges Joseph Bianco and Steven Menashi) said that those cases can't be categorically sealed (though courts could consider case by case whether particular such cases should indeed be tried confidentially):

As the district court properly held, the right of access to court proceedings and records depends on the nature of the proceeding, not on the personal characteristics of the litigant. And courts have consistently held that regular criminal courts are presumptively open to the public, even where the parties involved in the proceedings [such as crime victims] are children….

The district court presumed that defendants had "a compelling interest in protecting the confidentiality of court records and proceedings pertaining to juvenile defendants." We too can presume without deciding that defendants have established that they have such an interest, because even so, we agree that the Act is not narrowly tailored to serve that interest, and we therefore conclude that it violates the Courant's right of access to the courts….

[T]he Courant provided a number of examples, including the prosecution of Michael Skakel, that illustrate why the Act is not narrowly tailored. As of December 2019, Mr. Skakel was fifty-nine-years old, but under the Act, the records and proceedings in his case are mandatorily sealed because, despite being forty when he was charged, he committed his alleged offense at the age of fifteen. The need to protect the confidentiality of juveniles is not implicated by Mr. Skakel's case, and yet the statute's broad scope reaches him, in a case of great public interest. We need not strain ourselves to think of other examples where the statute would broadly overreach. For instance, gang prosecutions involving juveniles are not uncommon, and under the Act, Connecticut courts would be required to conduct numerous secret jury trials, where, given the seriousness of the crimes usually involved, the risk of unfair stigma does not seem to be outweighed by the substantial public interest in disclosure.

Congratulations to Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on winning the case.