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EDITORIAL: ‘A constitutional right to access court proceedings’

The Nevada Supreme Court struck a blow for transparency this week, ruling 4-3 that Family Court proceedings should largely be open to the public.

The decision is a victory for the First Amendment and accountability. It remains distressing, however, that the three dissenting jurists on the state’s highest court have embraced Star Chamber justice.

The case stemmed from new guidelines issued in June 2022 under which child custody cases were automatically closed and the public could be banned from other Family Court proceedings upon the request of anyone involved. The changes were a thinly veiled effort to undercut Alexander Falconi’s Our Nevada Judges website, which included videos of hearings and other information about Family Court activities.

The ACLU of Nevada challenged the edicts as unconstitutional.

The ruling, written by Justice Douglas Herndon, concluded that, under the reforms, “a party has the right to prohibit the public’s access to court proceedings without a judicial determination having been made that closure is necessary and appropriate. However, the public has a constitutional right of access to court proceedings.” In addition, the changes “eliminate the process by which a judge should evaluate and analyze the factors that should be considered in closure decisions, and by bypassing the exercise of judicial discretion, the closure cannot be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.”

Justice Herndon also noted that the “presumption of open proceedings is grounded in both history and logic.” Justices Abbi Silver, Elissa Cadish and Kristina Pickering joined the majority opinion.

The three dissenters — Justices Lidia Stiglich, Ron Parraguirre and Linda Bell — weren’t troubled in the least that Nevadans could be barred from attending Family Court proceedings on a whim. They argued that civil cases involving child custody, divorce and other sensitive issues often take place behind closed doors.

Yet the ruling doesn’t preclude a judge from considering a request for privacy. It demands only that the court conduct a hearing before making such a determination.

In fact, the dissenting justices couldn’t be more dangerously wrong. Closed proceedings must not be the default setting in a democratic republic. A civil justice system that regularly operates in the shadows will quickly lose the trust of the citizens it serves. This is particularly true in Family Court, where emotions run hot and complaints from angry litigants are common. Making it more difficult for watchdogs and taxpayers to determine whether the system operates properly and efficiently will only weaken public confidence in Family Court.

Secret justice is no justice. Closed court proceedings and sealed records should be rare and require exceptional circumstances. A free society demands no less.

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