Appeals panel rules certain youth court proceedings should remain closed

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan appellate panel ruled Tuesday that a state law meant to help rehabilitate youth offenders includes the shielding of certain court hearings and documents related to their cases. 

The law shielding proceedings from the public is constitutional and opening hearings to the public “would defeat the rehabilitative aims” of the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, Court of Appeals judges Stephen Borrello, Kirsten Kelly and Deborah Servitto ruled in a unanimous opinion.

Borrello and Servitto are appointees of Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Kelly was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2000. 

The Holmes law is a diversion program for defendants under the age of 21 that allows them to have their convictions dismissed and their file closed to public inspection if they successfully complete probation. A judge typically assigns Holmes Youthful Training Act or HYTA status at sentencing. 

The act's provisions allowing for closed court proceedings appeared to be at odds with state law, which largely requires open court hearings, said Lapeer County Prosecutor Michael Sharkey, who filed the appeal. Sharkey is considering appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, but he noted Tuesday's decision provides some guidance on the circumstances that would merit a closed court proceeding. 

"The best way that justice can be delivered with the highest degree of integrity, and at the same time protect the rights of the accused, secure justice for crime victims and hold offenders accountable is to have an open and completely transparent court," Sharkey said. 

Sharkey's appeal was prompted by a recent case in Lapeer County, where three individuals were sentenced in 2018 on allegations that they had planned a school shooting. 

The students, identified by their initials in Tuesday’s ruling, took a plea deal and were sentenced to five years’ probation under HYTA. 

When it came time for the students’ probation review hearings, Lapeer County prosecutors contended the proceeding should be open to the public and argued that closing the courtroom was unconstitutional because it violated the public’s First and Sixth Amendment rights to attend trials, according to the opinion. 

State law allowed for closing the proceedings and documents related to a case only after individuals have successfully completed their sentence and been discharged from HYTA status, prosecutors argued. In that sense, any probation review hearings should remain open to the public, they said.

A Lapeer County Circuit Court judge disagreed with prosecutors as did the Court of Appeals panel, ruling that the statute shielded proceedings from the moment of sentencing when the defendants were given youthful trainee status. 

Prosecutors' arguments about opening the courtroom are contrary to an earlier appellate ruling in which judges found the law meant that “all matters and hearings brought before the court in a case after the defendant had been assigned youthful trainee statuses are to be closed to the public,” according to the ruling. 

When weighing whether a given proceeding should be open to the public, judges must consider whether the place and process have been open historically to the public and whether “public access plays a significant positive role” in the process, Borello wrote in the opinion. 

The ruling noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the “wide differences” between court proceedings for youth and adults, differences that have been “tolerated” and, in many cases, “insisted upon” in spite of First and Sixth Amendment rights to public trials.

In addition, there is no indication that the public has a significant role during probation review hearings, Borrello wrote. 

“…the state has not cited any legal authority for the proposition that proceedings involving juveniles have historically been open to the public,” he wrote. “We discern this lack of citation to have occurred because none exist as it appears the opposite is true.”