Judge erred in opening dependency court to media, appeals court rules

A California appeals court ruled on Monday that a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge erred when he decided to open juvenile dependency court hearings to the press.

The action had been signaled by the judges in a tentative ruling late last year.

In a 2-1 decision, the appellate panel said the blanket order opening the courts for hearings to decide whether children should be removed from their families and placed in foster care interferes with individual judges' discretion "to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether a person may be admitted to the hearing based on a 'direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.'"

In her dissenting opinion, Tricia A. Bigelow, presiding judge of California's 2nd District Court of Appeal, said the appeal of the order should have been dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

The appeal had been brought by a 15-year-old girl who challenged a judge's decision to allow a Times reporter to observe a hearing at which lawyers discussed whether she should be removed from her family after being assaulted by her stepfather.

Although The Times does not typically report identifying details about children in the dependency system, the girl's lawyers argued that the case was "particularly brutal" and that children her age are extremely sensitive about the possibility of personal information being shared.

In January 2012, Michael Nash, presiding judge of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, issued a decree that dependency hearings, which had been presumptively closed for years, were now presumptively open to the press.

Nash said Monday he would soon issue a new order complying with the appellate court decision and laying out a new procedure for journalists and members of the public seeking access to dependency hearings.

"Over the last two years, I'm somewhat disappointed that there were not [more] visits to the court by the media. Other than that, I think the old order went well," Nash said.

Nash has been a longtime advocate of more-open courts, arguing that the hearings to decide the fate of some 18,000 foster children are often plagued by systemic problems that require broader public attention and debate.

Before issuing his blanket order, he lobbied unsuccessfully for legislation in Sacramento to accomplish the goal, but the effort died after opposition from the union representing social workers and some groups representing foster children.

Nash has led the county's Juvenile Court since 1995 and said he will not seek reelection. His current term expires in January, and he said he may leave sooner.

"I joke that I will either expire or retire," Nash said.


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