Cornell First Amendment Clinic’s appellate win for The Batavian secures right to access family court proceeding

In a major win for court transparency in a New York appellate court, the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic recently secured the release of the transcript of an improperly closed attorney disqualification hearing that had taken place in Genesee County Family Court. The decision affirms the principle that family court proceedings are presumptively open to the press and the public.

The Clinic first sought access to the transcript nearly two years ago after local news outlet The Batavian was denied access to the family court to cover the disqualification hearing of a prosecuting attorney, who was a newly elected judge. The family court then denied The Batavian’s motion to intervene and obtain the transcript based on its view that the underlying family court neglect proceedings were confidential.

In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department reaffirmed that New York courts, “both civil and criminal, are presumptively open to the public” and that “[t]his fundamental [presumption] of public access to judicial proceedings extends equally to matters heard in Family Court.”

The Appellate Court also took issue with the lower court’s determination that the disqualification motion was no longer newsworthy simply because the prosecuting attorney who was the subject of the hearing had already been elected to a judgeship by the time the motion was heard.  The Court found that the family court “improperly ignored both the continued importance of appellant’s role in reporting accusations of ethical violations or conflicts of interest on the part of a judge and the principle that, here, it was within the province of [the news outlet] to determine whether the hearing on the disqualification motion remained newsworthy.”

“I couldn’t be happier with this decision,” said Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian.

“It’s long been my belief that local journalists have an obligation to stand up for transparency in government and the right to public access to public business. This ruling affirms that all courts in New York are open to the public and can’t be closed to the public without a hearing and factual findings within the perimeters of the law.”

“We are thrilled by the complete victory for our client,” said Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic student Ashley Stamegna, who delivered the oral argument to the Fourth Department in December. “Without judicial transparency we cannot ensure that justice is being done in our courts of law. The Fourth Department’s opinion reaffirms the New York courts’ commitment to providing the transparency that both the law and the public require.”

Clinic Director Mark Jackson said, “The decision affirms in clear terms two essential principles: first, a court can’t simply shut off a particular court, here family court, from access to the public and the press, as a matter of law. Second, the determination of what is ‘newsworthy’ belongs squarely with editors, not judges.”

“I’m grateful to the Cornell First Amendment Clinic for taking up this case,” said Owens. “Mark Jackson and Heather Murray recognized the principles involved in this case and all of the students — notably Ashley Stamegna — who did the hard work of researching case law, writing briefs, and presenting arguments, were dedicated to the First Amendment issues at stake.”

The Cornell First Amendment Clinic team at the appellate level included lead attorney Heather Murray, Mark Jackson, Jared Carter and students Timothy Birchfield, Christopher Johnson, and Ashley Stamegna. Murray and Cortelyou Kenney argued at the lower court with summer fellow Samuel Aber assisting with briefing.