Wednesday, May 11, 2011

SJC Allows Press Access to Civil Commitment Hearings

Taunton District CourtImage by Mr. Ducke via FlickrIn Kirk v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 459 Mass. 67 (2011), the Supreme Judicial Court this week said civil recommitment hearings are presumptively open to the public.

The case involves Helen Kirk, a Carver, Mass., woman who in 2007 was found not guilty by reason of insanity of strangling her three-year-old son in March 2005, and committed to a state hospital. Two years later, state hospital officials believed Kirk could be released to a residential facility, but the Plymouth County District Attorney sought a civil recommitment hearing to keep her hospitalized.

Kirk requested that the recommitment hearing at Taunton District Court be closed to the public, which the court denied. More than three decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v.  Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980), held that the First Amendment entitles the public to attend criminal trials. SJC Justice Judith Cowin noted that although neither the federal nor Commonwealth High Courts has ever ruled that a corresponding right exists to attend civil trials, Massachusetts common law nonetheless presumes the public has such a right.

"Public access to the commitment proceedings underscores the seriousness of a potential deprivation of liberty and combats tendencies toward informality that may threaten an individual's due process rights," Justice Cowin wrote. The SJC concluded "both the legal evolution of civil commitment proceedings and the likely beneficial effects of public access to such proceedings support a conclusion that civil commitment hearings held pursuant to G.L. c. 123, sec. 16(c) are presumptively open to the public."

Kirk had argued that the release of  personal information in open court was violative of her privacy and could have a detrimental effect on her treatment. The Court said Kirk's contention was unsupported by expert testimony or other evidence. The SJC noted that although commitment hearings were presumptively open, a court could order closure of the proceedings if:  (1) the petitioner demonstrates an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced by an open hearing, (2) closure is no broader than necessary to protect that interest, (3) the trial court weighs reasonable alternatives to closure, and (4) the court makes written findings adequate to support the closure.

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