Summary Judgments for Nov. 18Leah Hill in Thomson Reuters News and Insight, November 18, 2011
The unwelcome mats at N.Y. Family Courts
Every unhappy family court in New York City might be unhappy in its own way, but how's the public to know? The New York Times' William Glaberson schlepped around to dozens of family courtrooms around town, and despite a 1997 law mandating openness the guards stopped him from entering nearly every one.
That law came into force at a time when the Family Courts traditionally had been closed to the public, worsening what critics considered a chaotic atmosphere for the lawyers, social-agency representatives and judges who practiced there. That secrecy hid some controversial ways of handling the children and adults whose fates were determined by a system starved of resources. And it contrasted with the general legal principal in New York State and elsewhere in the country that court sittings should be public. So in 1997, the state's chief judge announced that "the Family Court is open to the public," with the only exceptions ordered on a case-by-case basis if particular incidents of domestic abuse, child neglect or juvenile misbehavior warranted privacy.
When Glaberson toured one Family Court in Staten Island, he noted a sign declaring "The court is open to the public." Still, three officers questioned him before he was allowed in, and almost everywhere else Glaberson went, he was stopped by court officers at courtroom doors, often with armed hostility. "You don't just walk in," he was told at one courtroom, and "not allowed, not in Family Court," he heard at another. In one week alone, the Timesman visited 40 courtrooms in the five boroughs and was allowed into just five, some of which had no cases under way.
The administrative judge of the New York City Family Courts, Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, tells the Times she was troubled to hear about the closed courtrooms and would review the situation, adding that the rules shouldn't be ignored. But Fordham Law School Professor Leah Hill, an expert on the Family Courts, says for the most part that they are just as unaccountable now as the were before the 1997 law. "There hasn’t really been a public discourse about what goes on in Family Court," Hill says, "and part of the reason is that it is a closed institution."