For almost two years, the proceedings of the Los Angeles County Dependency Court — where thousands of cases involving foster children are heard annually — have been generally open to the press. That's a new arrangement in a system that has historically been much more restricted. It is the result of an order by Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Juvenile Court, who in early 2012 interpreted a statute that allows "interested parties" to attend these proceedings to include reporters.
But now, an appellate court has tentatively concluded that Nash overstepped his authority. The court's analysis strains the law and could end a productive experiment that has broadened public access and harmed no one. The court should reconsider and uphold Nash's order when it issues its final ruling.
It is important to recognize that hearings before Nash's order were not always closed, and that even under the order, they are not always open. As the appellate court says in its tentative opinion, the statute governing access to these proceedings notes that the public shall not be admitted unless the person seeking admittance can demonstrate a "direct and legitimate interest" in the work of the court. Nash concluded, after years of frustration administering a system in which judges, lawyers, social workers and others worked without any accountability to the public, that the press has such an interest and that the children involved in the proceedings would benefit from greater transparency and accountability.
But just as reporters could ask to be admitted to closed proceedings in the past, now children and their lawyers may object to reporters being present. If they can convince their judge that a reporter's presence would create substantial risk of harm to a child, the judge can close the proceeding. Since Nash's order went into effect, lawyers for children have sometimes objected, and reporters have sometimes been excluded.
Has openness perfected the Dependency Courts? No. But parents who felt their cases were being rushed through by overburdened lawyers and social workers have expressed relief to have outside eyes present; lawyers who complained of judges delaying cases have welcomed coverage that creates a disincentive to dawdle; judges say coverage has focused attention on questionable lawyering. Meanwhile, the tentative ruling cites no instance in which any child has been harmed by the presence of reporters.