Judge Michael Nash, who presides over the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, has long argued that public access to the court's proceedings would improve its accountability and the accountability of those who appear before it. Last week, he set out to prove it.
Nash, along with this page, had supported state legislation that would change the presumption that dependency court hearings, in which the fate of children in foster care is decided, should be closed, and would open them instead. That idea enjoyed substantial support in Sacramento until a coalition of child welfare advocates and representatives of organized labor came together to defeat the bill. Faced with an obstacle there, Nash issued an order for his court decreeing that hearings in Los Angeles County will now be presumptively open to the press, a word his order does not define, and that reporters can be excluded only if lawyers can convince a judge that their presence would create a reasonable likelihood of damage to children involved in the proceedings. His order is now in effect, and the results are encouraging.
A reporter from The Times was allowed to observe some hearings Tuesday, and was able to report the judge's dissatisfaction with the performance of a social worker in one case. A columnist for The Times was allowed to be present in another courtroom the following day. His observations will appear in Monday's paper.
There were furious objections to the presence of these observers, a reminder that the idea of openness is profoundly unsettling in a courthouse accustomed to doing its work in private. But privacy has bred arrogance and resistance to notions that otherwise suit society well: that the public has a right to observe its institutions at work, and that public servants should not be allowed to hide behind secrecy to disguise inefficiency, incompetence or worse.
There will be tough days ahead in Nash's campaign. Opponents of his order have filed an appeal and are seeking a stay to block it while they pursue that appeal. Moreover, Nash's order, for tactical reasons, decrees that the press — but not the public — has a direct interest in the workings of the court and thus deserves the presumption of access. That puts off two questions for later: What about the general public? And who, exactly, is a member of the press?
Those are important questions, but failing to answer them now is not an excuse to delay moving forward. Nash has taken a brave first step, and already it is allowing for insight into a system crippled by the habits of secrecy. Nash's experiment should be encouraged.