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Constitutional protections prevail over good intentions

A federal appeals court has saved Connecticut from implementing a bad law passed with good intentions.

Back in 2019, the Connecticut General Assembly unanimously approved, and Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law, an omnibus criminal reform package that had a little something for everyone. Tough-on-crime measures included stronger sexual-assault laws and stiffer penalties for the sale of Fentanyl. Progressives could point to enhanced legal protections for undocumented immigrants, the creation of a study of plea deals to assess for racial bias, and juvenile-justice reforms.

But no one was pointing out the new law also included provisions for closed court files and secret trials as part of those reforms.

It was one more step — and really a step too far — in a series of state reforms passed in recent years to divert more teens from the criminal justice system and into programs aimed at helping them. The reform movement recognizes the developmental immaturity of teens, the likeliness of them being more susceptible to peer pressure, and the societal damage done if early brushes with the law lead to a criminal lifestyle rather than reclamation.

Toward that end the law included a provision that cases against 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds that are so serious in nature that they are transferred from juvenile to adult courts — such as murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery — would remain closed as if they were still in the juvenile court system. Records would only be opened after a trial verdict or guilty plea, and not at all if charges were dismissed.

In trying to save young defendants from the stigma of public proceedings, the legislature sacrificed the protections open proceedings provide, both for the defendant and the public.

Imagine a 16-year-old arrested for a rape and murder. The defendant’s family claims there was a rush to judgment, that the investigation was tainted by racial bias. But neither the press nor the public would be allowed to assess the evidence, view the jury selection, evaluate the prosecution’s case, or evaluate the adequacy of the defense.

Under such circumstances doubts and mistrust would follow any verdict, guilty or not guilty.

In a lawsuit filed by the Hartford Courant — kudos to the newspaper for fighting this battle — two courts have now ruled the law violates the First Amendment right of access to criminal prosecutions.

“Closed trials breed suspicion of prejudice and arbitrariness, which in turn spawns disrespect for law. Public access is essential, therefore, if trial adjudication is to achieve the objective of maintaining public confidence in the administration of justice," wrote the appeals court in the latest ruling.

The initial decision that the provision was unconstitutional came in July 2019, by Judge Michael P. Shea in U.S. District Court in Hartford. Last week that decision was upheld by the three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Attorney General William Tong should end his attempts to defend the law and recommend that the legislature remove the unconstitutional provision from the statutes. The appeals court pointed to the long history of judges keeping adult courts open. The U.S. Supreme Court would be unlikely to even take the case if appeals continued.

In juvenile proceedings, which courts long ago agreed could remain closed, young offenders are treated as “delinquents,” not criminals, with plans for their treatment and reform, not their punishment.

In contrast, teens who have their cases sent to adult court because of the alleged seriousness of the crimes "shall stand trial and be sentenced, if convicted, as if such child were eighteen years of age," according to state law.

The appeals court noted that there could be special cases in which a closed courtroom could be justified, but those requests must be argued “on a case-by-case basis” and measured against “a presumption of openness.”

This is not a legal debate that attract much attention, but it was an important one and again shows the vital role the courts play in upholding constitutional protections — even when those protections are undermined by good intentions.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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