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Minnesota court opens most juvenile hearings

Friday, December 28, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Minnesota Supreme Court this week ordered that all hearings and most court records regarding abused and neglected children be opened to the public beginning July 1.

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Open Justice

A look at the national trend toward opening the juvenile court system to public view.

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The mandate follows a three-year pilot project in which hearings and records were opened in 12 Minnesota counties that volunteered for the experiment, including the state's largest, Hennepin.

Hearings and records in those counties, accessible to the public since June 22, 1998, will remain open.

Minnesota Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, who sought the pilot program and pressed for full openness, explained her court's decision: "It is my fundamental belief that the power of the court system is derived from the trust and confidence of the people in the judiciary. You cannot have that trust and confidence when the people cannot get into the courtroom."

Most states closed their juvenile courts about 30 years ago after a national organization that develops proposals for uniform state laws recommended it.

Recently, states began another juvenile court trend, this one away from secrecy. Over the past decade, nearly every state has opened some delinquency hearings. And now 12 states, including Minnesota, permit the press or public into hearings at which parents may lose custody of children they're accused of mistreating. Several other states are considering such proposals.

The Minnesota court's order granting public access comes four years after New York state's top court led the way by opening family court there because a state law mandates open hearings.

The wording of that law in New York is very similar to a constitutional protection provided in Pennsylvania -- and in 21 other states that still conduct secret juvenile court hearings. Most of those constitutional provisions simply say: "All courts shall be open."

Citing that guarantee, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the fall asked judges in Cambria and Westmoreland counties to open hearings involving abused or neglected children. The Westmoreland judge has not issued a decision. The Cambria judge yesterday denied the public access to the hearing. The Post-Gazette plans to appeal.

A Portland newspaper used a similar constitutional guarantee to persuade the Oregon Supreme Court to open all juvenile court hearings there in 1980.

The Minnesota pilot project was evaluated by the National Center for State Courts and was the subject of a public hearing last month. The evaluation says that during the experiment, nothing great and nothing horrible happened. No children were clearly harmed by publicity, the report says. And, on the other side, the open hearings did not draw the high level of public attention that some had hoped would prompt reforms in child welfare.

Blatz said in a telephone interview this week that she continues to feel strongly that openness is essential to good government.

She noted that she will continue to monitor the effects of openness to be sure children are not harmed. She pointed out that a judge may close any hearing, or parts of any hearing, based on tangible evidence that secrecy is essential to prevent real harm to a child.

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