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Nevada Supreme Court rules public has right to access Family Court hearings

Updated February 16, 2024 - 8:14 pm

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the public has a constitutional right to access Family Court proceedings.

The order deemed that a rule change that automatically closed some Family Court hearings violated the public’s First Amendment right to access court hearings.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada first challenged a District Court rule enacted in June 2022 on behalf of Alexander Falconi, who created the Our Nevada Judges news website.

“We acknowledge that there is an interest in protecting litigants’ privacy rights in family law proceedings, as those proceedings apply wholly to their private lives,” four Supreme Court justices wrote in the ruling. “However, a litigant’s privacy interests do not automatically overcome the press’s and the public’s right to access court proceedings.”

Justice Douglas Herndon authored the ruling, along with Chief Justice Elissa Cadish, Justice Kristina Pickering and Senior Justice Abbi Silver. Justices Lidia Stiglich, Ron Parraguirre and Linda Bell dissented.

Falconi filed the petition challenging the court rules after he was denied access to a child custody proceeding. Falconi has said he started the Our Nevada Judges website in 2014 to track statistics on judges, and he later expanded his efforts to videotaping hearings to educate people about the court system.

“I am grateful that the Supreme Court has enabled us to continue in our mission to bridge the gap between the public and the judiciary, by clearing a path for access to very important proceedings within Family Court that were largely inaccessible,” Falconi said in a statement Thursday.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal had also filed a petition challenging rules, arguing before the high court in March that transparency should be upheld within the Family Court system.

The Family Court rules allowed child custody hearings to be closed, without requiring that a judge provide a reason why, and allowed for Family Court proceedings to be closed at the request of one of the involved parties.

“It should be noted that the closure of various family law proceedings can and will be warranted in various instances,” Thursday’s ruling stated. “What we recognize today is the critical importance of the public’s access to the courts and the role that thoughtful, reasoned judicial decision-making plays in identifying the compelling interests at stake and determining: 1) if and when to order closure in any proceedings, be it family, civil, or criminal in nature; and 2) to what extent such closure should apply.”

The justices who dissented from Thursday’s ruling wrote that Family Court cases should not be treated the same as other civil proceedings, and that divorce and child custody proceedings do not have “distinct traditions of openness.”

The dissenting opinion also argued that the justices’ analysis contradicts laws that make proceedings involving adoption and termination of parental rights confidential.

“The Legislature’s critical role in setting forth — with the input and participation of members of the community — what should be open and under what circumstances should not be lightly cast aside,” the dissenting opinion stated.

Chris Peterson, the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada, said Thursday that keeping Family Court hearings open allows the public to hold elected judges accountable. According to a statement from the ACLU of Nevada, the Supreme Court justices adopted the organization’s arguments in Thursday’s opinion.

“Some of the most vulnerable people in our community appear before Family Court judges, and while there are cases in which it may be necessary to close a court hearing, imposing a blanket rule that obscures all Family Court proceedings by allowing any party to close a hearing without cause only serves to incentivize abuse within a Family Court system that is already marred with issues,” Peterson said in an emailed statement. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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