Should New York Family Courts be Open to the Public?

Generally speaking, courtrooms across the country are open to the public. On any given day, the average person may sit-in on trials, jury selection, arraignments and the various other happenings of the American judicial system. This is not the case in New York Family Courts.  According to a November 17 New York Times article, a reporter tried to enter more than 40 courtrooms over the period of one week and was turned away from all of them.

In 1997 Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Judith Kaye issued an order stating “The Family Court is open to the public.” In a statement issued in response to the order, Judge Kaye stated “it is vital that the public have good understanding of the court and confidence in the court.” The new rules were to give the public access to Family Court proceedings, while still helping safeguard and protect the children and families the court serves. Over a decade later, however, the courtrooms remain virtually closed to all but those essential to the proceedings.

According to the New York Family Court’s website, the Family Court is currently open to the public, as mandated by the 1997 order. However “the judge or support magistrate presiding over each case has the authority to exclude the public from the courtroom depending on the nature of the case or privacy interest of the parties.”

Instead of a case-by-case determination of whether the public should be allowed into the courtrooms, many court officers flatly deny the public entry into the courtrooms. The advocates of closed courtrooms are concerned with the privacy of the families involved. There is nothing more private or personal than a person’s family and what most of the families in these situations need is privacy rather than judgment, actual or perceived, from strangers.

Those opposed to closed courtrooms feel that the public has a right to know how the children and families are being treated by our justice system. If the courtrooms are not open to the public, there is more of a possibility for injustices to go unnoticed and families may not get the justice they deserve.

There are merits to both arguments, but as it stands now, the courts are mandated to be open to the public. Administrative judge of the New York City Family Courts, Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson said she was troubled to hear of the blocked attempts at entering the courtrooms around the city. Judge Richardson-Mendelson further said “we do not have policies or rules for them to be ignored” and she plans to review the situation.