L.A. judge plans to open child dependency courts to press, public
The presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s juvenile court said Monday he would issue an order in the coming days that would increase access for the press and public in a branch of the legal system that handles child abuse and foster care cases.
Judge Michael Nash’s annoucement capped a hearing on his proposed order that drew an overflow crowd to hear a debate that had sharply divided many involved in the child welfare system.
Much of the debate since his proposal was floated in November centered on the perceived benefits or weaknesses of more openness, but Nash opened his hearing by saying he wanted to focus solely on existing law and stay clear of broader policy discussions.
“My purpose is to implement the statute that applies and the case law that applies,” Nash said.
Under his proposed order, the news media would be presumed to have a legitimate interest that would allow them to attend hearings. Other members of the public would have to demonstrate a legitimate interest or be present with the consent of the child or the child's attorney.
The news media and other members of the public could be barred from the courtroom but only after an objection is raised by one of the parties to the case. The objection would have to demonstrate that “there is a reasonable likelihood that access will be harmful to the child’s or children’s best interest.”
Kelli Sager, an attorney for the Los Angeles Times, said Nash’s proposed order finally provides a road map for judges who are attempting to implement a law that allows them to “admit such persons as he deems to have a direct and legitimate interest.”
“For 20 years,” she said, “there has been no process set up … and the process has been inconsistent or ad hoc at best.”
Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents the vast majority of children in the dependency system, said her firm continues to consider an appeal if the order is implemented. However, she said recent revisions “largely cured” her objections by raising the bar for non-news-media members of the public to remain in the courtroom.
Heimov said in an interview that her biggest remaining concern involves the hearings that would take place if an objection to public or news media attendance is raised. Such hearings should be closed to the public, she said, while lawyers argue about the potential harm to the child’s interests.
“Otherwise, we’re exposing the child to harm before the finding of the harm,” she said.
If that issue is resolved, she said her office may not appeal the order.
-- Garrett Therolf
Photo: Judge Michael Nash in a 2005 file photo. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times