Kentucky Press Association files suit seeking access to juvenile court hearings, records

KENTUCKY — The Kentucky Press Association has gone to court to get journalists access to the state’s juvenile courts and juvenile court records, which are closed to the public under state law.

Inspired by an article in the September 2003 issue of Quill Magazine, John Nelson, KPA president and managing editor of the The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, took the issue to the association’s attorneys, who filed a lawsuit July 15. It is the first lawsuit the organization has ever filed.

The state of Kentucky and the Franklin Circuit Court Clerk are named as defendants.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Frankfort, asks the court to rule that the current statute limiting access to the records and proceedings of juvenile courts violates the First Amendment and the Kentucky constitution. The lawsuit points out that Kentucky’s constitution states, “All courts shall be open.”

“What we’re saying is that blanket closure of everything in a particular court system is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. We understand that, certainly, there will be instances when certain records and certain proceedings will be sealed or closed, but we think juvenile courts ought to have to go through the same process as other courts do to get this done,” Nelson said.

“[This] will allow us to be the watchdog we need to be over a particular division of our court system,” he added

Approximately 30 states have similar prohibitions on access of juvenile courts and juvenile court records.

Nelson said he decided to get the association involved in the issue after reading the article, “Opening Juvenile Courts,” by Barbara White Stack, which chronicled her struggle to open juvenile courts in Pennsylvania.

In the article, Stack warns of the dangers of closed court proceedings and calls them “a threat to a self-governing democracy.”

Stack’s employer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, used the “all courts shall be open” provision in Pennsylvania’s state constitution to open juvenile proceedings and related records in 2003.

“We can’t tell whether the juvenile system is working, whether juveniles are being treated fairly or whether they are getting off easy,” Nelson said. “The courts have been in the public’s blind spot — we know they’re there, but we don’t see them, and we can’t be a judge of how efficient they are and whether or not they are serving the public.”