Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles Juvenile Court, has long lobbied for legislation that would allow the public greater access to the work of California's dependency courts, where the fates of children in foster care are decided. Twice, bills have been introduced in Sacramento to achieve that important objective, only to be stymied by well-meaning but misguided objections from child welfare advocates and self-interested protests from public employee groups whose members would face greater scrutiny. Now, Nash is taking matters into his own hands, for which he is to be applauded.
This week Nash circulated a proposed order that would accomplish what legislators have been unwilling or unable to do: open the courts, at least here in Los Angeles. Drawing on rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court and others, it notes that such access allows the public to monitor the effectiveness of the courts and those responsible for administering foster care — essential requirements of sound and open government. "Public awareness and understanding of the juvenile court system … would promote public involvement in the governmental processes and might deter inappropriate actions on the part of some participants," the order says, quoting an earlier appellate court ruling.
Importantly, Nash's proposed order would not open every proceeding, any more than the presumption of openness in adult court means that every hearing there is open to the public. Rather, Nash is changing the current presumption in favor of secrecy to one that favors openness, while at the same time allowing parties to object if they believe secrecy is necessary in a particular case. If anyone does object, the only issue that a judge could consider in weighing that objection is whether openness would likely be harmful to the child's best interests. Judges could not close a hearing to spare the feelings of witnesses or shield foster care workers from public accountability.
It's a shame that the Legislature could not bring itself to pass a bill by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) that would have done what Nash is setting out to do. But until the state's elected leaders can find the courage to do what's right on this issue, Nash's move will allow L.A. to serve as a laboratory for gauging the benefits of openness. Moreover, the judge's willingness to tackle this question even though it may expose him and his colleagues to greater scrutiny should help confront the insidious and destructive assumption that secrecy is necessarily in the interests of children. In fact, secrecy often allows them to be harmed without consequence.
In Los Angeles, where too many children suffer at the hands of a sometimes indifferent child welfare system, Nash's order is urgently needed and long overdue.