An article in the New York Times, “Family Courts Say Keep Out, Despite Order,” (Nov. 18) describing a reporter’s experiences when visiting the city’s Family Courts, has generated attention in the Daily News and the blogosphere, as well as follow-up letters in the Times and discussion in the legal community. As result, the city’s Family Court judges have been told that administrators are considering the creation of protocols to assure that prior directives designed to permit media and public entry to the courts are honored. As president of the New York City Family Court Judges’ Association, I write to present a perspective with respect to the issue that has unfortunately been ignored in the news coverage.
There is no question that, as a general matter, both the law and public policy mandate that the Family Court generally be open to the press and public. To the extent that the Times’ reporter was treated in a disrespectful or discouraging manner by any judge or other court personnel as he sought to enter a courtroom, no excuses can be proffered. However, he and most of the commentators overlooked significant facts.
First, even the most cursory review of the Times’ or Google’s Web archives will show that individual cases have regularly been the subject of news coverage. The suggestion that the court is routinely closed to the press is simply not true.
Second, the public should of course not be dissuaded from attending proceedings. However, the unique nature of those proceedings and the physical structure of the courtrooms themselves preclude entirely open entry without any type of inquiry by the Uniformed Court Officers who provide security in each courthouse, or the judge, as to whether an individual seeking to be present during a hearing is there as a member of the public, the press, or because of a personal involvement in a case. Common sense and reason demand no less.
Family Court deals with some of the most highly volatile and emotionally-charged types of conflicts that can be imagined, with the adverse parties and their families often coming into direct contact with each other in the waiting areas and courtrooms. In a domestic violence or custody case, a mother who has been brutally beaten by her child’s father may be in the presence not only of the father, but of his new girlfriend and their families.
In a juvenile delinquency matter, the parents of a child who has been accused of raping another child might be in the same courtroom as the parents of the victim. In a child abuse case, a father who has broken the bones of his infant child may be confronted by the mother’s family. Caseworkers, lawyers, probation officers and judges are routinely the target of obscene rants by litigants and their families. Rage and tears are regular accompaniments to these types of proceedings.
In this environment, the court officers do an extraordinary job of defusing conflict before it escalates into violence, although occasionally their efforts are unavailing and physical assaults occur. It would be grossly irresponsible to simply allow people to come into the courtroom without the officers, or the judge, at least making a cursory inquiry as to their purpose there, if for no other reason than to make certain that hostile parties are seated apart. This is particularly necessary since most courtrooms are exceptionally small and a safe physical separation of hostile observers and the targets of their anger is often impossible.
Inquiry as to the identity of visitors is also necessary so that the parties know if a member of the media or other observer is present. While this may at first appear “chilling,” the law permits objections to be made by the parties to the presence of the press and others, so that their privacy interests are adequately protected. Such a situation arises, for example, where a child is accused of committing an act of delinquency and there is a request to honor his well-recognized and legally protected interest in not being stigmatized or emotionally or physically harmed by public dissemination of his identity.
Generally, an accommodation between that interest and that of the press is reached by a court order that permits reporting on the case, but without information identifying the accused child. However, that satisfactory resolution would be impossible unless, as an initial matter, the presence of the press is made known.
None of this is to say that as a routine matter anybody seeking entry into the courtroom should be required to provide formal identification. In virtually every instance, all responsible personnel respect people’s representation as to why they are there and admission is allowed. It is unfortunate that apparently was not the Times’ reporter’s experience. However, by simply ignoring the concerns of the type outlined, as did the article, a totally inaccurate picture is presented.
Similarly inaccurate is the suggestion that the public is intentionally kept out of the Family Court so that the participants in a dysfunctional system, including the judges, can hide their misdeeds and indolence. Nothing can be further from the truth. Concerned bar associations, public interest organizations, and periodically, the press, have repeatedly received the cooperation and encouragement of the judicial administration and the individual judges to visit the court and report accurately on its work. These reports almost uniformly describe an exceptionally hard-working cadre of jurists who in New York City are appointed by the mayor based upon their substantive merits following an exhaustive and highly competitive and entirely apolitical vetting process. They also report that while proceedings can take a long time to resolve, that is a function of both the complex nature of the matters and of the continually increasing number of cases each judge must address.
Since 1991, two decades ago, the number of Family Court judges has remained stagnant. This stagnation continues notwithstanding the repeated calls to the Legislature, in reports prepared by those concerned bar associations, citizens’ groups and others, to created more judgeships. The Legislature has refused to answer these calls.
The judges see and understand, better than anybody, the challenges of the Family Court system. Those challenges have been exacerbated by budget cuts which limit court hours, create longer lines at security checkpoints at courthouse entrances, and dramatically reduced the social services that are essential to the well-being of the individuals and families that appear before us.
We also understand that having the public see what actually occurs in Family Court on a daily basis would likely foster added respect for the work that is accomplished and generate support for desperately needed resources. We thus encourage the press to visit and report accurately and completely about what it sees.
Unfortunately, most press coverage has dealt with particularly sensational matters or reported cursorily on some easily observed flaw in the process. In so doing, that coverage tends to reflect society’s general disdain for coming to grips with the difficult social and economic issues that underlie Family Court’s work. The Times article and the discussion it generated sadly continue that trend.
The author is a Kings County Family Court judge
and president of the New York City Family Court Judges’ Association.