A federal court on Friday ordered the state judiciary to open courtrooms and unseal the case records of teenagers charged with the most serious felonies, ruling for the Hartford Courant in the newspaper’s challenge of a new law that it says illegally bars the public from court proceedings.
U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea concluded that the 10-month old state law violates first amendment rights of access to the courts by sealing cases against 15, 16 and 17-year olds charged with murder, rape and other serious crimes. The law, the Juvenile Transfer Act, was written to seal records and close courtrooms when the cases against the teens are transferred from juvenile to adult court.
Finding that the newspaper is likely to prevail in its challenge, Shea ordered the state Judicial Branch to unseal all cases transferred since the law’s effective date and to make public all cases transferred to adult court in the future. He postponed parts of the order for a month to give advocates for the teens an opportunity to argue individually against unsealing.
"This ruling marks a critical victory for transparency in our criminal justice system," said Andrew Julien, the Courant's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. "The state will no longer be able to automatically shield from public scrutiny proceedings in crimes considered serious enough to be handled in the adult criminal system."
"In its ruling, the court emphasized the importance of an open judiciary -- open to unfettered scrutiny and investigation by the press and the public," he said. "These are principles fundamental to a free press and our work at the Courant."
The law, enacted a year ago and effective since Oct. 1, is the most visible of a package of measures pushed in recent years by juvenile justice advocates whose goal is diverting teens from the criminal justice system and the stigma associated with arrest and prosecution for violent crimes.
The law was intended to hide the identity of the teens by keeping records secret and only unsealing cases in the event of convictions in closed courtrooms. But Shea and the state judiciary concluded that language of the law unseals all records when cases against teens conclude, either by conviction or acquittal.
The Courant, with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sued in December to overturn the law, arguing it violates the free speech guarantees of the U.S. and Connecticut constitutions by restricting the rights “of members of the press and the public to attend criminal proceedings and inspect judicial records in criminal cases.” The Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression joined suit with a brief opposing the law.
“The district court’s ruling is an important victory for the press and the public,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the reporters committee. “The decision ensures that defendants under the age of 18 that the State of Connecticut criminally prosecutes as adults for the most serious crimes will not be tried in secret, and that is exactly what the First Amendment requires.”
The Courant argued that the press and public have the right to attend criminal trials and access case files because the cases are prosecuted in adult court, where proceedings have always been public, based on the premise that justice delivered openly is delivered impartially.
The judicial branch argued that there is no first amendment right attached to the cases of juveniles whose cases are transferred to adult court. What’s more, the judiciary argued that the state has a compelling public interest in closing the proceedings. That interest, the judiciary said, involves allowing the teens to mature without being associated with violent crime.
Even if the state does have a compelling interest in shielding teens accused of violent crimes, Shea said the Transfer Act is illegal because its provisions “are not narrowly tailored to achieve that goal because they reverse the presumption of openness, they sweep too broadly, their exceptions do not align with the State’s stated goals, and they fail to take account of less restrictive alternatives to protect the privacy of juvenile defendants.”
The Courant also argued - and Shea noted - that the law undercuts the public’s interest in examining judicial outcomes, often in cases that have been - or would be - closely followed. Among them is the decades-long and once very public prosecution of now 59-year old Michael Skakel.
The judiciary sealed he Skakel case under the new law because he was 15-years old in 1975, when he is accused of clubbing to death his 15-year old neighbor Martha Moxley. Skakel, famously related to the Kennedy family, was tried and convicted as an adult. The state Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 2018. The state was contemplating a retrial when the new law became effective and prohibited further discussion of the case.
Should prosecutors decide against retrial, under the law they would be unable to publicly explain why.
The new law also sealed he prosecution of 16-year-old defendant charged with first-degree manslaughter in a case that stunned Hartford a year ago. A 71-year-old woman, walking across the street outside her home, was struck and killed by one of two cars tearing across the city while engaging a running gun fight.
Also sealed was the highly publicized prosecution of 16-year-old Alexander Bolanos, charged with conspiracy to commit murder after the December 2018 drive-by shooting death of a 12-year-old in Bridgeport.
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