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PG asks judge to open custody hearings

Custody case for Bright children triggers request

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A lawyer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked a Westmoreland County Juvenile Court judge yesterday to open hearings concerning foster care for the surviving children of John and Annette Bright of Monessen, arguing that the state constitution guarantees that all courts will be open.

Related series:

Open Justice: The trend toward opening juvenile court is now gaining momentum


Joseph Moran of Reed Smith LLP, Downtown, told Common Pleas Judge Rita D. Hathaway that there are no exceptions to the constitutional protection that the public can attend all court hearings in the state.

Four attorneys, representing the Brights, their surviving children and the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, urged the judge to continue to seal the proceedings.

After listening to the attorneys for an hour, Hathaway gave them 20 days to file written arguments. Then she will decide whether to release transcripts of past proceedings and allow the press and public to attend future hearings on the children who were placed in foster care after the killing of their 8-year-old sister, Annette, in July. A family friend, Charles Koschalk, 35, of Monessen, is charged in the killing.

The Brights had allowed him to be alone with their children after he pleaded guilty to corruption of the morals of a minor in a case involving Annette's older sister.

The hearings in juvenile court concern the custody of the children, Marcia, 12, and John, 7, who were placed in foster care Aug. 7, about a month after their sister's death.

A hearing on the parents' plea for the children to return home was conducted Sept. 24. The Post-Gazette asked to attend, but Hathaway refused to delay it long enough to listen to the Post-Gazette's argument that it should be open to the press and public. Hathaway said the newspaper had failed to provide sufficient notice of its intention to request an open hearing.

The hearings are so secretive, however, that the Post-Gazette had been unable to find out the date for the proceeding. Hathaway said if she decides the hearing should have been open, she will release transcripts.

Moran argued yesterday that Pennsylvanians' right of access to court hearings dates back to the 1600s. He said the language is clear and must be interpreted for what it says.

In addition, Moran said, the state law closing juvenile court hearings allows a judge to admit anyone -- including the press -- who has a legitimate interest in the case. He said the press and public have a legitimate interest in this case because the Brights have accused the Children's Bureau of "kidnapping" their children and because another child welfare agency had previously taken Bright children into custody.

With a closed hearing and the child welfare agency forbidden to talk about individual cases, the reporting on the issue tends to be one-sided -- giving only the Brights' point of view -- and possibly not accurate, Moran argued.

Attorney Mary Ann Grec, representing the Children's Bureau, said that even under the constitutional protection for open hearings, a judge may close proceedings or parts of them to prevent harm to people involved. Because the Bright children's names already have been revealed, she said, the hearing should definitely be closed to protect them.

She told the judge that during a visit with the parents, one of the children hid under a table when he was told that reporters were in the area.

Leslie J. Uncapher, who represents the Bright children, said that although the constitution calls for openness, anyone who wants to attend must prove they should be there because state law closes the hearing.

In addition, she said the child welfare and juvenile court system has its own checks and balances because people within the system can share information with each other. So, she said, the public need not attend court hearings to see how justice is meted out and how tax dollars are spent.

Hathaway asked Moran specifically about the conflict between the constitutional guarantee of open court and the state law closing juvenile proceedings. Moran said there is some question about the constitutionality of the law.

Hathaway noted that this may be the first time in Pennsylvania that someone has raised the issue of whether abuse or neglect hearings must be open under the constitutional guarantee.

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