Texas law allows judges to close juvenile hearings to the public

01/22/2014 8:39 PM

01/22/2014 8:40 PM

Despite protests when the media were barred from a hearing where a teenager pleaded guilty to capital murder, state District Judge Jean Boyd has “wide discretion” under state law to bar the public from a court proceeding, experts said Wednesday.

Before the hearing, during which the teen was sentenced to 26 years behind bars, Boyd cleared the courtroom of anyone not directly involved in the case. She did not state a reason.

Reporters from the Star-Telegram, KTVT/Channel 11 and KDFW/Channel 4 were ordered out of court, as was Melody McDonald, spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

The prosecutor in the case objected to the public being removed.

“She can throw out about anybody,” said Jeffrey N. Kaitcer, former president of the Tarrant County Family Bar Association, who was not surprised by Boyd’s action. “There are guidelines with wide discretion.”

According to the Texas Family Code, if a juvenile appearing in court is under 14 at the time of the proceeding, the judge has to close the hearing unless it is determined that the interests of the child and the public would be better served by allowing an open hearing.

If the defendant is older, as in this case, the law states that a juvenile court hearing should be open to the public “unless the court, for good cause shown, determines that the public should be excluded.” The law, however, does not require a judge to provide a written order or a statement on why it is being closed.

Randy Catterton, a retired family law judge, said he had cleared his courtroom when a child was going to testify and he believed it necessary. The only time he stated a reason was if he was later asked to do so.

“I don’t believe she had to state the reason at the time she made the ruling,” Catterton said.

Kaitcer said that in such cases “the rehabilitation of the juvenile is first. so it trumps everything else or is foremost in the judge’s mind as required by law.”

The judge would also want to keep “needlessly salacious” information from being publicized, he said.

In this case, the defendant, now 17, was 16 when he beat 17-year-old Nicholas Anderson to death with a hammer.

Assistant District Attorney Brock Groom said he protested Boyd’s order to bar the public from the courtroom, but he couldn’t discuss what Boyd said during the hearing. Prosecutors also objected when Boyd closed the teen’s certification hearing two weeks ago, citing concern that news coverage could taint potential jurors if the case remained in juvenile court.

“If a person wants to go down [to the courthouse] to see a public trial in a public courtroom, they ought to be able to do it,” Groom said.

An attorney representing the Star-Telegram was not allowed to enter the courtroom to formally protest Boyd’s decision.

“It's concerning that Judge Boyd has closed her court to the public again — and we really don't know why,” said Jim Witt, the newspaper’s executive editor. “While we recognize there are sometimes extraordinary circumstances that make closing a courtroom appropriate, we'll be discussing what we might do in the future to ensure the people's business gets done in the open.”

Paul Watler, a media attorney in Dallas who has represented newspapers, magazines and wire services, said other courts recognize the right of the news media to challenge the closing of an open courtroom.

“The Texas law requires good cause must be shown before it is closed, and it should be for a sufficient legal reason,” Watler said.

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