Ruling is expected to allow posting of juvenile felony cases Appeals court committee scheduled to make its recommendation this week

October 07, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Acting to strengthen a new law that made felony juvenile hearings public, a Court of Appeals committee is expected to recommend this week that all Maryland courts post notice of open cases with the names and charges of all minors facing felonies.

The Court of Appeals Rules Committee is expected to meet and formally make its recommendation to the full court Friday.

"We'll be preparing a rule that clarifies that calendar assignments and court assignments are not confidential," Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chairman of the committee, said yesterday. "Somebody could walk in and say, 'I want to see what juvenile cases are open today' and that should be available."

The rules committee is a group of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals responsible for making guidelines that govern Maryland's courts. The Court of Appeals must hold a hearing but will weigh heavily the committee's recommendations.

"The rules committee is a very influential group," said Robert M. Bell, chief of the Court of Appeals. "But we don't rubber-stamp anything."

The recommendation is a response to requests by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which said the information is needed for a new law that made felony juvenile court hearings public as of Wednesday.

Without the list of names and charges, the public won't know which cases are open, the association said.

"What we're trying to do is to get notice about these hearings -- a calendar or schedule that says where the case is being heard and when it's being heard," said James Donahue, executive director of the press association, which includes The Sun.

As a matter of policy, however, The Sun does not publish the names of juvenile offenders.

Although legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year opened felony juvenile court hearings to the public, juvenile court records remain confidential.

The press association told the committee that a list of names, charges and dates of hearings should not be considered confidential and should be available to the public now that the law says people can attend the hearings.

After meeting with the press association and other judiciary officials Wednesday, the rules committee agreed.

But the recommendation quickly drew fire from advocates for juveniles yesterday.

The committee's recommendation and the new law will make it more difficult for juveniles to shed their pasts and turn their lives around, the advocates said.

"It's just one step closer to eroding the purpose of the juvenile court," said Heather Ford, a policy analyst for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore. The juveniles "are now going to be public spectacles, especially in the smaller counties and towns."

"It's unfortunate that the press is requesting this," Ford said. "They want easier access to that information. I don't think the law specifically entitled the press to that information."

Ford said she plans to send a statement to the committee opposing the recommendation.

Donahue said that he believes the public wants the information because the legislation opening the juvenile proceedings passed the General Assembly with strong support.

Clarifying the rules, Donahue said, is needed to help the public, particularly the news media, attend the hearings. He said different courts throughout Maryland have different rules regarding juvenile courts.

Some areas of the state, such as Baltimore, don't post charges.

City Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, head of the juvenile courts, said posting charges would require the Baltimore court to purchase new software for its computers. He did not know what that would cost.

"It's mostly a clerical issue," Welch said. He said other concerns are the impact the new law and the rules would have on the juveniles.

"It's a drastic, drastic change," Welch said of the new law.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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