HARTFORD, CT — The Hartford Courant is challenging a new law that allows juvenile felony cases to be transferred to juvenile court where the proceedings are not open to the public.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court Wednesday asks the court to declare the new state law unconstitutional and order court officials to unseal judicial records related to juvenile cases.
“The Juvenile Transfer Act creates a significant impediment to The Hartford Courant’s ability to inform its readers about matters of the utmost public interest and concern, and prevents [it] from engaging in the kind of comprehensive, investigative reporting that the paper is known for and that serves the public interest,” Andrew Julien, the Courant’s publisher and editor-in-chief, said in a sworn statement submitted to the court.
Under the Juvenile Transfer Act, defendants between the ages of 15 and 18 who are charged with certain felonies and whose cases are transferred to adult criminal court will be shielded from public view. Even though these transferred juveniles will be tried as adults, the law stipulates that any records of the proceedings “shall be confidential … unless and until the court or jury renders a verdict or a guilty plea is entered.” The law prohibits members of the press and the public from attending courtroom proceedings or inspecting court records in such cases.
The lawsuit names Chief Administrative Judge Patrick Caroll III as the lead defendant because the judicial branch is in charge of carrying out the new law.
The new law, which the complaint says is unconstitutional, was passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate. It retroactively sealed 116 pending and future cases when it went into effect on Oct. 1.
Among the cases to be sealed retroactively is that of Kennedy-cousin Michael Skakel, whose 2002 conviction for the 1975 murder of Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley was vacated by the state Supreme Court last year. A juvenile court judged ruled in 2001 that Skakel’s case should be tried in adult court.
“The Courant is unable to access docket information or judicial records in connection with the possible prosecution of Skakel because, on information and belief, Skakel’s case has now been sealed pursuant to the Act,” the complaint states.
Also as a result of the law, newspapers will be unable to provide information to the public about the prosecution of a 16-year-old defendant charged with first-degree manslaughter in connection with the hit-and-run death of a 71-year-old woman during an alleged shoot-out in Hartford in October 2019.
In another case, Alex Bolanos, 17, is charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the Dec. 18, 2018, fatal shooting in Bridgeport of 12-year-old Clinton Howell. According to the Courant’s lawsuit “ all records and proceedings in Bolanos’ case have been sealed.”
“In the event that Bolanos is found guilty, court records associated with his case will be unsealed, but the press and the public will have been denied contemporaneous access to the judicial records and proceedings in his case,” the complaint states.
Attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and William S. Fish Jr. of Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP are representing the Courant.
“Openness is a bedrock feature of our criminal justice system. Connecticut’s Juvenile Transfer Act is flatly inconsistent with the longstanding and constitutionally guaranteed right of reporters and other members of the public to attend criminal proceedings and to review court dockets and other records in criminal cases,” Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend said.