Recent decisions affect access to juvenile courts

BY THOMAS J. WILLIAMS Haynes and Boone, LLP

   Recent news events have shown that, sadly, juvenile courts do not hear only cases involving minor offenses committed by “good kids.”  While those types of cases are certainly part of a juvenile court’s docket, all too often juvenile court judges must hear cases involving offenses such as assault, battery, sexual assault, intoxication manslaughter, and even murder.  These cases involve criminal conduct but juvenile courts in Texas are considered civil courts and, as in many other states, public access to juvenile court proceedings in Texas has historically been more limited than access rights to criminal court proceedings involving adult defendants.  Two recent appellate court decisions, however, should serve to limit a juvenile court’s ability to exclude the press and public from hearings and trials and ensure greater public access rights to these courts.

   The Texas Family Code provides that in a case in which the accused juvenile is at least 14 years old the proceedings “shall” be open unless the court “for good cause shown” determines that the public should be excluded.  In a case decided this summer, In re Fort Worth Star-Telegram, et al., the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held that before a juvenile court judge may close a proceeding to the press and public, there must be “some evidence in the record supportive of a good cause finding that the public should be excluded.”  In Star-Telegram, a group of two newspapers and four television stations challenged a juvenile court judge’s orders in a murder case closing to the press and public, without prior notice or public hearing, an adult certification hearing and a subsequent hearing to approve a plea bargain agreement made by the accused juvenile and the prosecutor.

   Shortly before the Star-Telegram case was decided, the El Paso Court of Appeals held in In Re A.J.S. that an accused juvenile has a constitutional right to an open hearing (similar to the right long recognized for defendants in adult criminal cases) and that before a juvenile court trial may be closed to the public, the party seeking closure must establish an overriding interest that would be prejudiced if the trial were open and that no reasonable alternative to closing the hearing will protect that interest.

   The combined effect of these two cases should mean that first, a juvenile court proceeding may be closed to the press and public over the objection of the accused juvenile only in the most extraordinary circumstances, if ever; and, second, that even if the accused juvenile wants the proceedings to be closed, there must be evidence offered on the record showing the good cause for doing so.

-- Thomas J. Williams is a partner in the Fort Worth office of Haynes and Boone.  He represented the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and television stations KXAS-TV, KTVT-TV, and KDFW FOX 4 in In re Fort Worth Star-Telegram.