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Hartford Courant Company v. Carroll: The Second Circuit Finds Categorical Sealing of all Juvenile Criminal Cases Unconstitutional

Reports First Amendment

Hartford Courant Company v. Carroll, No. 20 2744-cv (February 1, 2021)

On February 1st, in Hartford Courant Company v. Carroll, the Second Circuit struck down a Connecticut law regarding access to juvenile prosecution records for infringing upon First Amendment rights. Connecticut enacted Public Act Number 19-187 (the “Act”) in 2019, which significantly reduced public and press access to information surrounding cases in which juveniles are charged with committing serious crimes. The passage of the Act led the Hartford Courant Company, home of the largest daily newspaper in Connecticut, to seek injunctive and declaratory relief declaring the Act unconstitutional.

The Connecticut Superior Court’s family division, or “juvenile docket,” hears all of Connecticut’s juvenile cases. Juvenile docket cases are private, and records of proceedings are sealed. However, if an individual is between fifteen and seventeen years old when charged with a capital crime or other serious felonies, the case is transferred from the juvenile docket to the regular criminal docket. Cases may also be transferred from the juvenile docket to the regular criminal docket on a discretionary basis when the individual was between fifteen and seventeen years old at the time of the offense. In these transferred cases, the juvenile is treated as an adult in all respects except sentencing.

Prior to the Act, transferred cases were not automatically confidential but instead treated as ordinary criminal proceedings. The 2019 Act expanded the automatic sealing of records and closure of court proceedings to include transferred cases.

Notably, the Act shields the records of defendants who committed crimes as juveniles, but now are adults. To illustrate the impacts of the Act, the district court’s ruling highlights the high-profile case of Michael Skakel, a relative of the Kennedy family who was prosecuted for murdering his neighbor at age 15. The court reversed Skakel’s conviction due to ineffective counsel, and the state is currently considering a retrial. Under the Act, all records relating to this case were sealed even though Skakel is now 59.

The Hartford Courant’s complaint claimed the Act was unconstitutional under the First Amendment, relying on Supreme Court precedent guaranteeing the public and press a qualified First Amendment right to attend criminal trials. The complaint recognizes that this access right can be abridged when there is a compelling state interest. However, it argues, this abridgement is only proper when evaluated on a case-by-case basis and when the law is narrowly tailored to meet the specified state interest. According to the complaint, the Act’s categorical application does not meet these requirements.

State prosecutors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and other critics of the Act believe it contradicts the American guarantee of public trials. The Yale Law School Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression provided an amicus brief in support of the Hartford Courant. The brief presents the First Amendment right of access as an essential structural component of the U.S. Constitution and “bedrock principle of democracy” that “promotes trust and enables accountability over our institutions.”

Proponents of the Act also recognized the existence of the access right, but argued it did not apply in the instant case because of the compelling state interest to keep the juvenile case proceedings private. According to the defendants, the Act is narrowly tailored to meet Connecticut’s interest in preserving the confidentiality of these transferred cases. Supporters of these arguments include child advocacy groups and Connecticut state officials who claim that the societal benefit of protecting the privacy of accused teens outweighs the access rights of the public and press.

The district court and Court of Appeals chose not to rule on the question of the existence of a compelling state interest. Instead, they accepted the claim that the state had a compelling interest, but nevertheless found the Act unconstitutional because it was not narrowly tailored to achieve the state’s interest. The Court of Appeals posits that the Act could be flipped from having a presumption of confidentiality for transferred cases to having a presumption of openness. Then, the court could be allowed to find on the record that there is a compelling need for confidentiality for an individual case.