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Friday, February 24, 2012

We Join Almost EVERYONE In Saying: Open Kentucky's "Kangaroo" Family Courts.

Editorial | Open family courts

Proponents of a pilot project to open family courts in some Kentucky counties offer strong arguments on the proposal’s behalf.

As Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald said, public confidence in the judicial system is particularly low “in cases involving abuse and neglect of children.” She explained that she and other judges who attended a legislative hearing Wednesday believe greater transparency and less secrecy about what takes place in family courts will be in the best interests of the public and of families involved in abuse and neglect cases.

The vehicle for opening up some courts is House Bill 239, which would allow judges approved by the state’s chief justice to open hearings to reporters and to the public. Judges would have the discretion to close hearings. A House committee unanimously approved the bill after several judges spoke in favor of it at Wednesday’s hearing.

The bill should be passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed by the Governor. Shocking reports of fatal child abuse cases in Kentucky and the ongoing resistance of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to obey a circuit judge’s orders to open records indicate the need to bring child welfare issues into the sunlight.

Along its legislative journey, however, HB 239 needs clarification and tightening.

For starters, the bill should specify — or the chief justice should make clear in authorizing judges to open courts — that there are only very narrow grounds for closing proceedings. One of the things that a pilot project should demonstrate is that there are many benefits and few drawbacks to open courts — and that has indeed been the experience in other states that have taken similar steps. That lesson will be blurred if judges shut their doors too often and too quickly.

Moreover, as Jon Fleischaker, an attorney for The Courier-Journal, points out, there are problematic provisions in HB 239 that will create unnecessary difficulties for the public and news media. These include bars to identifying witnesses in cases, even though anyone who attends the proceedings will learn their names. Another clause would allow judges to inspect reporters’ notes, something few reputable journalists would allow.

Such measures should be changed. If Kentucky is going to give open family courts a try, then allow truly open courts.

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