Proposed legislation to allow for the opening of certain juvenile court proceedings to the public is moving in the Kentucky Senate. The bill that emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday has been an emotional issue, debated by policy makers for years.
The bill, sponsored by Western Kentucky Senator David Givens calls for a pilot project in three to seven court jurisdictions. District and family court judges in these areas could choose to open up juvenile court proceedings. Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell testified in support of the measure. “I think that the public has a legitimate and compelling interest in the work of our juvenile and family courts,” said O’Connell. O’Connell says Kentucky is one of only ten to eleven states that have presumptively closed juvenile hearings. Bill sponsor Senator David Givens says the bill is tightly drafted to limit the details in open juvenile cases to written notes. “Although justice must be blind, it can’t be done in the dark and so this effort to provide very limited, targeted transparency in a pilot project is something that I have become an advocate for,” said Givens. Givens says, in addition to the written notes provision, judges have the discretion to open a hearing or not. Two members of the committee expressed strong opposition. Pike County Senator Ray Jones worries any restrictions on gathering testimony in a juvenile court hearing wouldn’t offer enough protection. “And once you let the Genie out of the bottle and you start telling people, people that are privy to this information, how are you gonna stop them. Because as soon as I walk out of here, I could get on facebook, I could get on twitter, and once that information is out, what’s the punishment? What could a judge do at that point?” asked Jones. Jones also worries judges could be placed under more public pressure in sensitive cases involving children. Supporters of the bill like Givens say conjecture is already happening on social media without open court proceedings. Grayson Representative Robin Webb is an attorney who’s worked on child neglect and abuse cases for years. She cast a "No" vote on the bill. “I’m not comfortable with the pilot project, or I don’t want it really coming to my jurisdiction to affect the children that I represent and to give them perhaps a scarlet letter or things the public doesn’t have a right to know,” said Webb. Some in the legislature have expressed concerns about the state’s response in certain cases of child neglect and abuse. Bill sponsor David Givens says some questions in these cases could be answered through public proceedings. “We hear that the cabinet is not bringing its best game or a judge in a certain district may not be the best judge in a district to do this work or a county attorney or public defender may not be the most adequate person. We won’t know any of those things until we have some element of transparency. This is not about targeting any of those players,” said Givens. Givens says he considered limiting the bill to just criminal matters involving children. But he says often those cases are already moved into adult court and are already open. The committee also heard from Elizabethtown District Judge John David Simcoe. He believes some judges would be glad to open up certain juvenile court proceedings. "I think that will occur. The bill gives some guidance in what to look at when they’re deciding whether they should close a case or not,” said Simcoe. The decision about where to locate the three to seven pilot programs would come from Kentucky’s Chief Justin John Minton. Proponents says these pilots would likely not be placed in communities where court officials don’t welcome the idea.