Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Press association opposes family-court bill that would set up prior restraint confrontations

The Kentucky Press Association is opposing a proposal that purports to open the state's family court system but would actually fall far short of that promise.

House Bill 239, which was approved last week without dissent and sent to the Senate, would set up a pilot project in state courts that deal with dependency, neglect and abuse proceedings or termination of parental rights. The press association has for years encouraged the state to open family court to the public and the media.

But KPA Executive Director David Thompson, in an email to the association's members, characterized the project as "more of a closed court, once it's open," and said the proposal clearly would violate the First Amendment prohibition of prior restraint on news coverage.

Under the plan approved by the House, any person – a private citizen or a journalist – attending a hearing would be prohibited from naming any individual involved in the court proceeding or giving any information that would lead to the identity of any individual. That would include identifying a witness who testified at the proceeding. That prohibition would be in force "outside of the court room."

The plan also allows anyone attending the hearing to take written notes, but it gives the judge or court official the right to inspect those written notes before the notes are taken from the court room.

"There is no openness when the public and the media are gagged, and written notes sanitized by court officials," Thompson said.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1976 in Nebraska Press Association v. Judge Stuart that a judge's order that journalists who attended a preliminary hearing could not report anything they heard until the trial started was an unconstitutional prior restraint.

The court in 1989 in Florida Star v. B.J.F. ruled unconstitutional a Florida law that prohibited the publication of a rape victim’s name by the news media.

"Numerous legislators have referred to opening family courts as a way to give more transparency to the public about issues involving the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Nothing needs to be said about how important that is. But House Bill 239 has not become that vehicle," Thompson wrote.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Judge orders Cabinet for Health and Family Services to speed up its release of child-abuse records

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services has been given 90 days to release thousands of pages pertaining to about 180 cases of children who died or were badly injured from abuse or neglect. The order was issued Thursday by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, who called the cabinet's reluctance to comply with state open records laws an "utter failure," reports Deborah Yetter of The Courier-Journal. The ruling is the latest in the cabinet's fight with the Louisville newspaper and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Shepherd's ruling replaces a previous order that told the cabinet to release 1,000 pages a week, which it started doing Jan. 27. The documents released so far — which have been "heavily redacted" at the cabinet's discretion and against Shepherd's ruling — represent 15 cases. The cabinet argued it should not be obligated to release the records since it is appealing Shepherd's decision, but the judge rejected that argument. He also said the cabinet had to list reasons for why it was redacting some information "and be prepared to defend them in court after releasing the files," Yetter reports. (Read more)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Policy won't cut it: AG says public defender has to disclose cases she handled in certain time period

The attorney general’s office recently found that the Department of Public Advocacy improperly withheld records in responding to a request for documents identifying a DPA attorney's cases by case name for March and April of 2010 and their trial dates.

Attorney General Jack Conway said the DPA, in its Dec. 19 response to James Potter, violated the Act procedurally and substantively. Procedurally, the response did not cite a specific exception to the Open Records Act. Substantively, the DPA relied heavily on a policy – based upon the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers and an ethics opinion from the Kentucky Bar Association Ethics Hotline Committee – not to disclose lists of client names absent a lawful order or other legal requirement to do so. The policy says “Specific case information is not to be shared, but generally case totals or trend data not identifying a particular client may be shared.”

The attorney general's office considered those arguments in a 2002 decision (02-ORD-103) and concluded that disclosure of the names of clients represent by a named DPA attorney would violate neither attorney-client privilege nor the client’s privacy. It said that when represented by DPA counsel in open court, clients cannot expect confidentiality.

On an aside, the DPA made a supplemental response that tried to justify the denial on the basis that the information that Potter requested, while it existed in a database, was not a regular report generated by the DPA. Conway said that argument was procedurally deficient because the open-records law makes clear that a public agency has discretion to tailor the format of existing records to conform to the parameters of a specific request. He said the DPA must produce a report for Potter or give him access to the entire Kentucky Unified Criminal Justice Information System database after redacting any statutorily protected information.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Judge urges governor to side with openness, says appeal of other judge's ruling is to protect cabinet

A veteran Kentucky circuit court judge has taken issue with Gov. Steve Beshear's recent opinion piece published in a number of Kentucky newspapers that defended his administration's appeal of a court decision that ordered some child abuse records be open to the public.

Judge Tyler Gill, circuit judge in Todd and Logan counties for 17 years, disputes some of the governor's contentions in a column published in The Courier-Journal today. He concludes after his years on the bench that openness and accountability are the better policies.

"Openness should always be the rule where government is involved and secrecy the rare and carefully considered exception to that rule," Gill writes. "I have come to believe that secrecy in courts of law should be eliminated in every adversarial action initiated by any agency of the state. Non-adversarial actions, such as private uncontested adoptions or adoptions after parental rights have previously been terminated, should remain confidential.

He was critical of the governor's support of the state's appeal of a Franklin Circuit Court decision ordering the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release with minimal redacted information its records of children who died or nearly died while under protection of the cabinet.

"I have also come to believe that confidentiality imposed by our statutes is more often used to hide state incompetence or misconduct than to protect the citizens of Kentucky. Do not be misled. The cabinet’s appeal of the Franklin Circuit Court ruling is not a high-minded effort to protect the privacy of persons who report child abuse. It is to protect the cabinet."

Gill also cited a case he presided over in 2008 in which he said a lawyer for the cabinet was working against the interests of a patient committed to its care. He argued that openness was the only way to make the cabinet accountable for its actions.

"While we can always find some downside to open government, the consequences of government secrecy are far worse. We need only look to the courts and governments of totalitarian regimes such as China, North Korea, Iran or Cuba for this lesson."

He ended by urging the governor to work to open records and not close them. "The governor concluded his article by saying that he would continue to battle in court alongside the cabinet and its lawyers. I urge Gov. Beshear to stop listening to the cabinet’s lawyers and to start battling for the people of Kentucky. Our children deserve an open and accountable government."

Read his full column here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Health and family cabinet keeps withholding more information on child abuse than judge allowed

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services released three more death and near-death cases involving child abuse or neglect Friday under court order, but continued to withhold critical information. It has appealed the order.

The 2009 cases involve two babies who died from suffocation while the parents were impaired. A third case involves a 2-year-old girl from Lawrence County, who was injured after she was reportedly kicked in the head by a horse while unsupervised.

The cabinet "continues to withhold, or redact, far more information" than was allowed under the Jan. 19 order of Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, reports Deborah Yetter of The Courier-Journal. Shepherd said the cabinet could withhold the names of children seriously injured by abuse or neglect, names of private citizens who report suspected abuse, the names of minor siblings in the home and the names of minor perpetrators.

But the cabinet is withholding more information than that. "For example, in the case of the girl injured by the horse, the cabinet deleted the name and relationship of the adult who was watching her, even though the adult is named and identified as her grandfather in a separate internal review of the case," Yetter reports. "The cabinet also withheld juvenile and family court records in that case and the names of all adults involved." The girl recovered from the skull fracture sustained by the horse.

Gavin Villarreal never woke up after he was found with a plastic bag over his head in his crib, possibly placed over the 5-month-old's head by other young children in the home. His parents both tested positive for drugs on the day of his death and were convicted. In the third case, a month-old baby died after his father apparently rolled over him in his sleep. Both parents admitted they had been drinking and used marijuana before they went to bed. (Read more)