HB 1803 may change juvenile access

HB 1803 may change juvenile access

by: Thomas J. Williams, a partner in the Fort Worth office of Haynes and Boone

  As the United States Supreme Court observed almost 50 years ago in In re Gault, the juvenile justice system is “a peculiar system,” which is “unknown to our law in any comparable context.”  While juvenile court proceedings in some ways resemble the adult criminal justice system, juvenile proceedings in Texas and many other states are considered civil, not criminal cases, with procedural rules encompassing aspects of both the civil and criminal justice systems.

  One significant way in which the juvenile justice system typically differs from the adult criminal justice system is the issue of public access to court proceedings.  In criminal cases involving adult defendants, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure provides quite simply that “the proceedings and trials in all courts shall be public,” but in juvenile cases the law is different.

  Section 54.08 of the Family Code provides that if the accused juvenile is at least 14 years old “the court shall open hearings…to the public unless the court, for good cause shown, determines that the public should be excluded.”  If the accused juvenile is younger than 14, the presumption is reversed:  in those cases, “the court shall close the hearing to the public unless the court finds that the interests of the child or the interests of the public would be better served by opening the hearing to the public.”  Two Texas appellate cases decided last summer, in Fort Worth and in El Paso, should limit the situations in which a juvenile court may exclude the public from hearings and trials, but nevertheless the statute gives no definition of “good cause” or specific procedural guidelines a juvenile court must follow before closing a courtroom to the public.

  Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, has introduced a bill, HB 1803, which, although still allowing the possibility of closed proceedings in juvenile court under some circumstances, would significantly improve the statute and set forth a clear procedure which a juvenile court judge would be required to follow when considering the possibility of closure.  Under Goldman’s bill, a juvenile court proceeding could be closed to the public only upon the filing of a written motion by a party to the case, with at least three days’ notice before the hearing sought to be closed.  This would prevent a repeat of the situation which occurred in a high profile case in Fort Worth last year in which the juvenile court judge closed hearings to the public even though neither the State nor the defense had requested it.

  If a motion to close a proceeding were made, the court would be required to conduct an evidentiary hearing in open court.  The proceeding could be closed only if the court determined that there exists a “reasonable and substantial basis” for believing that an open hearing could harm the accused juvenile, endanger the juvenile’s right to a fair trial, or endanger a victim.  The Court would also be required to conclude that the potential for harm to the child or a victim outweighs the benefits of public access and that the harm could only be cured by excluding the public from the proceedings.

  Importantly for the press, Goldman’s bill would provide that any member of the public could object to the requested closure and would have the right to appeal a closure order, which would stay further proceedings in the juvenile court until the appeal could be resolved.  Finally, Goldman’s bill would eliminate the current distinction between cases in which the accused is at least 14 and those in which the accused is younger, instead requiring the same procedure and standards for all juvenile cases.