Star-Telegram, other news outlets go to court over closed juvenile hearings

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Jan. 30, 2014

Six major media outlets in Dallas-Fort Worth joined Wednesday to file a plea in intervention in state District Judge Jean Boyd’s Tarrant County juvenile court to ask that any hearings regarding Ethan Couch be held in open court.

The motion also asks that the media outlets be given a chance to be heard if the judge considers motions to close a hearing to the public or makes a decision to do that on her own.

Boyd made national news recently for sentencing Couch, 16, to 10 years’ probation and therapy for driving drunk and causing a crash that left four people dead. She has yet to set the terms of his probation.

After the uproar, in another case involving a teenager, the judge twice barred everyone not directly connected with the case from her courtroom.

In that case, a 17-year-old was accused of beating a 16-year-old to death with a hammer. The 17-year-old, who was a juvenile at the time of the beating, pleaded guilty.

The Star-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News, KDFW/Channel 4, KXAS/Channel 5, WFAA/Channel 8 and KTVT/Channel 11 jointly filed a motion in Boyd’s court requesting that if she contemplates closing future hearings in the case, they be given reasonable notice of any closure motion so their arguments to keep the hearing open can be heard.

Boyd gave no reason when she closed the court in the unrelated murder trial, so the plea in intervention also requests that the court “decline any closure motion absent a showing of good cause articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.”

According to the Texas Family Code, if a juvenile appearing in court is under 14 at the time of the proceeding, the judge must close the hearing unless it is determined that the interests of the child and the public would be better served by allowing an open hearing.

If the defendant is older, as in the Couch case, the law states that a juvenile court hearing should be open to the public “unless the court, for good cause shown, determines that the public should be excluded.”

Jim Witt, executive editor of the Star-Telegram, said the paper filed the plea because the case was a matter of great public interest.

“Judge Boyd’s action to close her court in the unrelated murder trial gave us concern that she might take the same route in future hearings regarding Ethan Couch,” he said. “And we want to do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen absent good reason, as the law requires.”