Thursday, March 19, 2009

Court system heading toward more openness, perhaps even in juvenile courts

Leaders of Kentucky's court system are discussing major rules changes to make the courts more transparent, including proposals to make juvenile court more open.

The move is part of a broad plan that could put all court expenditures on line, provide better Internet access to court records and form a citizens’ commission to give the Supreme Court advice on open-courts matters, said Jason Nemes, outgoing head of the Administrative Office of the Courts. The changes would be up to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Nemes said Chief Justice John Minton Jr. has asked judicial experts to look again at a bill introduced in the 2008 legislative session that would have given judges more discretion in opening child-protection proceedings, as well as other changes to make juvenile courts more transparent. That could include recommendations on opening more juvenile records and giving judges more discretion to open juvenile proceedings.

"There's lots of different ways to do it," Nemes said, noting that some states treat proceedings and records differently.

The Kentucky Press Association unsuccessfully sued in federal court in 2004 to open juvenile courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in 2006 that state law already allows judges to grant access to "interested parties" and that judges could admit journalists as interested parties.

A Supreme Court rule detailing how judges could do that would be "a giant step," said John Nelson of Danville, executive editor of The Advocate-Messenger and KPA president when the suit was filed. "Courts have assumed that part of the statute means that they can’t let anybody in except the parties who are affected," he said.

Nelson said the General Assembly took "a baby step" last year in opening docket information on juveniles charged with violent crimes and that an additional small step could be further opening of juvenile dockets.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1978, two years after the Open Records Act was passed, that it did not apply to court records because the legislative branch could not tell the judicial branch what to do. Most court records are generally open as a matter of policy, but Minton wants the court to change the rules as part of what his chief of staff, Katie Quitter, called “a general movement in state government toward transparency.”

Quitter said Minton had been persuaded in part by similar moves in the governor’s office and by Nemes, who will leave his job at the courts' administrative arm on April 3.

“I’m a huge proponent of openness in government,” Nemes said in an interview. He said his office is working on the draft rules, which will be submitted to the Judicial Council, a panel of judges, lawyers and legislators who advise the Supreme Court.

Minton said in an interview that he recently reactivated the council, and "I just thought it would be a good forum in which to vet the whole issue of openness, which I think needs to happen." He said any changes are up to the seven members of the Supreme Court, but "In order for us to be credible, for people to have a basis to trust us, we've got to be more open."

The new rules could apply to Supreme Court agencies, including the Kentucky Bar Association, the Board of Bar Examiners and the Judicial Conduct Commission. For examples of how access to those records is limited, see this story by Andrew Wolfson in The Courier-Journal.

No comments:

Post a Comment