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Circuit Court of Eighth Judicial Dist. v. Lee Newspapers

Supreme Court of Wyoming

August 12, 2014

CIRCUIT COURT OF THE EIGHTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
LEE NEWSPAPERS, dba the Casper Star-Tribune, the Douglas Budget, L.P. dba, the Douglas Budget and the Glenrock Independent, the Wyoming Press Association, and the Associated Press, Appellees (Plaintiffs)

Page 524

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 525

Appeal from the District Court of Converse County. The Honorable Keith G. Kautz, Judge.

For Appellant: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; Martin L Hardsocg, Deputy Attorney General; Cathleen D. Parker, Senior Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Parker.

For Appellees: Bruce T. Moats, Law Office of Bruce T. Moats, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Before BURKE, C.J., and, HILL, KITE,[*] DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

OPINION

Page 526

FOX, Justice.

[¶1] The Circuit Court of the Eighth Judicial District (circuit court) closed the court proceedings in a juvenile sexual assault case and sealed the court file, purportedly in accordance with Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a) (LexisNexis 2013). The circuit court denied existence of the case file, and barred the news organizations (appellees) from attending any court proceedings. The appellees moved to intervene to gain access to information pertaining to the case, but the defendant was bound over to district court before the circuit court ruled on the motion. The appellees then filed a declaratory judgment action in the district court. The district court found that the circuit court erred when it closed the court proceedings and denied existence of the case file. We affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] 1. Have the parties presented a justiciable controversy?

2. Did the circuit court violate the United States Constitution when it closed the court proceedings and sealed the court records?

3. Did the circuit court correctly interpret Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a)?

FACTS

[¶3] In May 2012, the Converse County Sheriff's Department issued an AMBER Alert, notifying the public that a minor child had been reported missing, and requesting assistance in finding the child. The sheriff's department publicly released the name of the minor in an attempt to find her. A man was later arrested and charged with sexual assault of a minor in connection with the AMBER Alert and the missing child. Following the arrest, the Chief Deputy County Attorney of Converse County requested that the circuit court restrict disclosure of information related to the case in accordance with Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a). Without a hearing or findings on the record, the circuit court granted the request by sealing all case files and barring public attendance at all circuit court proceedings.

[¶4] Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a) provides:

Prior to the filing of an information or indictment in district court charging a violation of an offense under this article, neither the names of the alleged actor or the victim of the charged offense nor any other information reasonably likely to disclose the identity of the victim shall be released or negligently allowed to be released to the public by any public employee except as authorized by the judge with jurisdiction over the criminal charges. The actor's name may be released to the public to aid or facilitate an arrest.

[¶5] The statute only applies " [p]rior to the filing of an information or indictment in district court," Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a), during the short time it takes the circuit court to hold a preliminary hearing and determine whether probable cause exists to commence further proceedings. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 5-9-132(b) (LexisNexis 2013); W.R.Cr.P. 5.1(a). Once that determination is made, the circuit court either binds the defendant over to district court, or dismisses the case altogether. W.R.Cr.P. 5.1(b), (c).

[¶6] Following the circuit court's closure of the court proceedings and sealing of the case file, The Casper Star-Tribune ,[1] aware of the case through the AMBER Alert and other sources, filed a motion to intervene, requesting that the circuit court unseal the case file and open any court proceedings to the public. The following day, the defendant waived the preliminary hearing, and the case was bound over to the district court before the circuit court ruled on the newspaper's motion.

[¶7] The Casper Star-Tribune, along with other news agencies (collectively the appellees), then filed a declaratory judgment action in the district court " seeking a ruling

Page 527

on whether Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a) required the closure of records and proceedings in cases alleging sexual assault." The parties stipulated to the facts of the case, and the district court granted summary judgment to the appellees, holding that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-319(a) does not require either the records or the court proceedings be closed. The district court found that a redacted case file would serve to both protect the parties involved in the action and provide information to the public. The district court went on to recognize that the circuit court can conduct public hearings by using initials for the alleged victim and defendant, again serving the dual purpose of protecting the parties and allowing such court proceedings to be open to public scrutiny. The circuit court timely appealed.

[¶8] The appellees do not challenge the circuit court's confidential treatment of the victim's identity, nor do they dispute that the statute prohibits the circuit court from releasing the name of the alleged actor. The issue before us is how far a circuit court may go to prevent the release of the accused's name before it runs afoul of the First Amendment. Our opinion, therefore, focuses on the constitutional limits to the statutory ...


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