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REDWOOD CITY — Going into a special hearing Thursday, proponents of opening San Mateo County’s juvenile dependency hearings seemed to carry a stacked deck. They had five witnesses scheduled to their opponents’ one, and would be making their arguments before a judge who had already demonstrated her willingness to open such hearings, at least some of the time. But the open court advocates got off to a choppy start Thursday as their opponents put their lead witness through a rough 90-minute cross-examination. Fred Cheesman, senior court researcher for the National Center for State Courts, found himself constantly defending his organization’s upbeat report on Minnesota’s three-year pilot program on largely unrestricted access to juvenile courts. He said the survey reported that the majority of guardians, county attorneys and social workers favored the experiment, while judges were about evenly split, and most lawyers defending children disliked it. Cheesman, testifying by video from Alexandria, Va., appeared shaky in explaining why so much trust should be placed into a report that included no input from children, parents, therapists or treating psychiatrists. “This was a tricky evaluation, and it was very challenging,” he told San Mateo lawyer Kevin Thurber, representing the San Mateo County Bar Association’s private defender program. San Mateo County Supervising Juvenile Court Judge Marta Diaz, who is overseeing the hearing, appeared frustrated at Cheesman’s responses. She asked several questions herself, trying to put the group’s study into perspective with real-life situations. After Cheesman testified that the study had found no kids harmed by the program, the judge wanted to know how the study measured harm — such as whether “Johnny and Jane” threw up in court because there were strangers watching. Cheesman defended public access. “Open courts have been implemented in 16 states,” he testified. “The data is there.” San Mateo County officials, including Counsel Thomas Casey III, Manager John Maltbie and Human Services Director Maureen Borland, petitioned the court late last year to have dependency hearings presumptively open, closing only if there was a valid objection by a child, parent or guardian. State law currently presumes all juvenile court hearings are closed, but gives judges discretion to open them if petitioned by anyone who has “a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.” Judge Diaz did that two years ago during proceedings for Ashley Marinda, whose 8-month-old brother, Angelo, had been beaten to death by his father during an unsupervised Christmas visit in 2002. County Counsel Casey argued in court papers that opening the hearings as a regular practice “would give the public a much more accurate picture of how the system actually works than does public access only to highly unusual, high-profile and tragic cases such as that of Angelo.” Cheesman, under questioning by Deputy County Counsel David Silberman, testified that after Minnesota opened its juvy courts, it found an increase in court attendance, especially by foster parents and others in the caregiver system, and had closed the courts only six times in three years. On the down side, Cheesman reported, both the media and the general public showed a decided lack of interest in day-to-day juvenile hearings. Under cross-examination by Gerry Hilliard, managing attorney of the San Mateo bar’s private defender program, Cheesman said he had found that the media was only interested in sensational cases — involving sex abuse, severe abuse or prominent families — and provided a “distorted view” of a system with quite a few successes. “So, the media behavior was the same after opening hearings as it was before?” Hilliard asked. “Sadly enough, that was the case,” Cheesman responded. The hearing, held for about three hours in a county office building with videoconference capabilities in downtown Redwood City, moved to the San Mateo County Juvenile Court for the afternoon. Even then, witnesses for the pro-open court forces didn’t deliver any knock-out blows. Theodore Knuck, the juvenile court commissioner for Pima County, Ariz., dutifully testified that open hearings there hadn’t produced a circus-like atmosphere in the courts, irresponsible press accounts or harm to children. But he did say he closes his courts virtually every time a child’s lawyer seeks closure based on possible adverse effects to the children’s privacy rights. At times, Knuck’s testimony seemed almost to undercut the argument of the proponents who had flown him in from Tucson. “I’m not a proponent here either way,” Knuck said. “[Open hearings in Arizona] was a law, it passed, the rules were changed and I do my job to the best of my ability.” After the county called its remaining witnesses and closed out its case Thursday, Kevin Thurber, a panel attorney with the PD program who opposes opening the courts, asked Diaz for judgment, saying that the county had clearly failed to make its case. Diaz seemed to consider the motion, Thurber said, but ultimately decided to carry over the proceedings. The hearing is scheduled to reopen today with testimony from the opponents’ lone witness, William Wesley Patton. Patton, a professor at the Costa Mesa-based Whittier Law School Legal Policy Clinic, is one of the nation’s leading foes of public access to juvenile courts.

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