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In re A.L.

California Court of Appeal, Second District, Eight Division

March 3, 2014

IN RE A.L. et al., Persons Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law.
v.
J.P., Defendant; Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Plaintiff and Respondent, A.L., Appellant; Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, Respondent.

APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles. Rudolph Diaz, Judge. Reversed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. CK 91269).

Page 355

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Joseph D. MacKenzie, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Appellant.

William Wesley Patton, Costa Mesa, for Whittier Law School Legal Policy Clinic as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellant.

Kenneth Krekorian for Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, Inc., as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellant.

No appearance for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Davis Wright Tremaine, Kelli L. Sager, Rochelle L. Wilcox, Jeff Glasser, Dan Laidman; and Karlene W. Goller, Los Angeles, for Respondent.

Frederick R. Bennett, Court Counsel, Los Angeles Superior Court as Amicus Curiae, upon the request of the Court of Appeal.

Marcy Forgey, MD, MPH, president of California Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, in pro. per., as Amicus Curiae.

Children's Advocacy Institute, Robert C. Fellmeth, Elisa Weichel, Christina Riehl, and Ed Howard as Amicus Curiae.

OPINION

[168 Cal.Rptr.3d 591] GRIMES, J.

SUMMARY

The child in this dependency case appeals the juvenile court's order allowing access by the Los Angeles Times to the dependency proceedings. In allowing access, the juvenile court complied with a blanket order from the presiding judge of the juvenile court. The blanket order provides that all members of the press " shall be allowed access" to dependency hearings unless there is a reasonable likelihood that access will be harmful to the child's best interests. The order further provides that no one may be denied access to a courtroom until an objection has been made, and until the objecting party has demonstrated that harm or detriment to the child is reasonably likely to occur as a result of permitting access.

Page 358

We conclude the blanket order, by declaring the press cannot be excluded until an objection is made and harm to the child is demonstrated, conflicts with Welfare and Institutions Code section 346 (section 346). The blanket order interferes with the discretion section 346 vests in the court to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether a person may be admitted to the hearing based on a " direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court." Accordingly, the blanket order is invalid and the juvenile court's order allowing access to The Times in this case is reversed.

BACKGROUND

Section 346 governs public and media attendance at dependency court hearings. Section 346 states: " Unless requested by a parent or guardian and consented to or requested by the minor concerning whom the petition has been filed, the public shall not be admitted to a juvenile court hearing. The judge or referee may nevertheless admit such persons as he deems to have a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court." This has been the law for several decades.

On January 31, 2012, the presiding judge of the juvenile court, the Honorable Michael Nash, issued a blanket order " to provide guidance to the parties, the press and members of the public as to how the Los Angeles Juvenile Dependency Court will apply" section 346. (Super. Ct. L.A. County, Juvenile Division, Blanket Order (Jan. 31, 2012).) The order was issued after the presiding judge solicited and received written comments on a proposed order and held a public hearing at which all interested parties were invited to speak.

The key provisions of the blanket order are these.

First, members of the press are " deemed to have a legitimate interest in the work of the court," and " shall be allowed access to Juvenile Dependency Court hearings unless there is a reasonable likelihood that such access will be harmful to the child's or children's best interests." (Blanket Order, Nos. 1 & 2.)

Second, any party may object to access by members of the press or the public. The objecting party " must demonstrate that harm or detriment to the minor child is reasonably likely to occur in the case as a result of permitting the public or press access to the proceeding." (Blanket Order, No. 4.) When an objection is made, " the court will consider such factors as the age of each child, the nature of the allegations, the extent of the present or expected publicity and its effect, if any, on the children and on family reunification and permanence, and the safety and well-being of the child, parents and family,

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consistent with the overriding purpose of the proceeding to protect the child and advance [168 Cal.Rptr.3d 592] his or her best interests." [1] (Blanket Order, No. 5.)

Third, the court may not deny access to the courtroom to a member of the press or public " until an objection has been made and the court has found, based on the evidence and argument presented, that either the member of the public has no legitimate interest in the case or the work of the court, or if there is a legitimate interest, that, after balancing the considerations [listed above], access must be denied." (Blanket Order, No. 7.) [2]

After the blanket order was issued, representatives of The Times began to attend dependency hearings, and Children's Law Center lawyers and others responded by objecting to the presence of the press. One of these cases was that of A.L., a girl of 15, and her four younger siblings.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services had detained the five children after A.L. was assaulted by her stepfather, J.P. The Department's petition alleged J.P. had an unresolved history of alcohol abuse that led to acts of brutal domestic violence on the mother and A.L. The petition alleged mother was aware of and had not protected the children from J.P.'s alcohol abuse.

A pretrial resolution conference was scheduled for February 7, 2012, one week after Judge Nash issued the blanket order. A reporter and an attorney for The Times were present. A.L.'s counsel objected to their presence in the courtroom, and asked to continue the matter and to brief the issue of confidentiality. Counsel for The Times asserted that counsel for the Children's Law Center was " making blanket objections, which are impermissible under the court's blanket order ..., ...


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