MANHATTAN (CN) — Connecticut’s largest daily newspaper fought at the Second Circuit on Wednesday against a state rule that has barred access to high-profile juvenile trials like that of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.
Except for victims and their family members, Connecticut law keeps confidential felony juvenile court cases that have been moved to adult court, which is otherwise accessible to the public.
The Hartford Courant argues that the rule undercuts public interest, securing an injunction from U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea that now Connecticut court officials seek to overturn.
At oral arguments Wednesday before a three-judge panel, Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Alma Nunley emphasized that more than an access issue, there’s a “punitive” element to unsealing juvenile court records.
Even in cases where a juvenile case is transferred to adult court, he noted that they theoretically can be transferred back to the juvenile domain.
But U.S. Circuit Judge Joseph Bianco was quick to point out that “there’s a much more narrow way of dealing with that” when such a case arises.
The Manhattan-based panel asked Nunley if there is a less restrictive method of protecting privacy without sealing documents and blocking court access.
“Ten trials could take place with nobody knowing about it,” said Bianco, a Trump appointee. He added that he is “surprised” to see the state of Connecticut taking the position that the First Amendment does not apply.
Nunley cited testimony from psychologists and other experts, saying that “individuals don’t finish developing until well into their twenties,” so their judgment is not fully baked. Those people deserve the protection of confidentiality, she said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Steven J. Menashi noted that if somebody is tried in their 20s for conduct when they were 19, they wouldn't have that protection anyway.
“There’s a movement in this country to raise the age even to 21,” Nunley said, but “the state has to draw the line somewhere,” that place being age 18 for now.
Katie Townsend, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued for the Hartford Courant on Wednesday.
“This notion of protection juveniles is simply not furthered by this particular statute,” Townsend said, and the act is “not well- or narrowly tailored” to the interests of the state.
The Connecticut law concerns cases where a defendant between ages 15 and 18 is charged with certain felonies, including murder, armed robbery and rape. The defendant is subject to the full range of penalties and procedures of adult court.
Under the amendment, which took effect in October 2019, those matters now “shall be private” unless the criminal defendant is found or pleads guilty. Proceedings are ordered to be held in separate parts of the courthouse from other trials, and public and press access is prohibited.
In a brief ahead of the oral arguments, Townsend reiterated the newspaper’s claim that the act blocked its ability to report on a retroactively sealed matter against Michael Skakel, who is now 60 years old.
Skakel was convicted in 2002 of murdering his neighbor Martha Moxley in 1975, when both Skakel and Moxley were 15 years old. The conviction was reversed in 2018, due to inadequate legal counsel, and Skakel was granted a new trial.
That trial would be closed to the press and public under the new law, and records and docket information would not be available, despite the case gaining national attention.
The underlying complaint, filed last December in New Haven federal court, cites other sealed prosecutions where the Courant’s court coverage was hindered. One is a manslaughter case against a 16-year-old who was charged with an October 201 hit-and-run that left a 71-year old woman dead during an alleged Hartford shoot-out.f
In an article about its own First Amendment suit, child advocates told the Hartford Courant that the privacy of teens matters more than public access in this case.
“I am sensitive to First Amendment issues but I think they are outweighed by the need for the confidentiality of juveniles,” said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford.
In an emailed after the hearing, Townsend said she’s optimistic about how the court will rule.
“It's clear that the press and public have a presumptive First Amendment right of access to dockets and other judicial records in criminal proceedings involving juvenile defendants who are being tried as adults, and this morning's argument only underscored that the state of Connecticut's attempt to categorically ban public access in those cases is patently unconstitutional,” Townsend said.
“We are optimistic that the Second Circuit will affirm the ruling of the district court enjoining enforcement of the unconstitutional confidentiality provisions in Connecticut's Juvenile Transfer Act.”
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