Wyoming circuit courts may not exclude the public and the media from hearings set to determine whether the state has enough evidence to justify charging defendants with sexual assault, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The ruling is a victory for media organizations that challenged a circuit judge's refusal to release information about a Casper man charged in 2012 with kidnapping and sexual abuse of a Glenrock girl.
Tuesday's ruling concludes that Circuit Judge I. Vincent Case Jr. violated the First Amendment when he closed court proceedings and sealed the court records before transferring defendant Robert J. Parks to district court.
The Casper Star-Tribune, several other Wyoming newspapers, the Wyoming Press Association and The Associated Press had challenged the closure of proceedings in Parks' case.
“We are thrilled for the result of this decision,” said Jason Adrians, editor of the Star-Tribune. “This is the right ruling and a victory for transparency in Wyoming.”
Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, said Tuesday the ruling will make it easier for journalists to do their jobs.
"But that's not why we do these things," Angell said. "We do these things because we're the guardians of the public's knowledge of what's happening around them."
Jim Clarke is chief of bureau for The Associated Press in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
"We're pleased the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled in favor of news media access — a right that The Associated Press has been fighting for aggressively in courtrooms and halls of power around the country," Clarke said Tuesday.
District Judge Keith Kautz of Torrington last fall ruled that the circuit court was wrong to close the proceeding. The Wyoming Attorney General's Office appealed that decision, setting the stage for Tuesday's ruling that applies to courts statewide.
Peter Michael, Wyoming attorney general, said Tuesday he hadn't yet reviewed the opinion and had no immediate comment on it.
Cheyenne lawyer Bruce Moats represented the media organizations in the appeal. He said there have been a number of courts in Wyoming that have done exactly what Case did in Parks' case — to seal a case to the extent they won't even acknowledge there is a case out there.
"Now this ruling says, 'you can't do that,'" Moats said.
Moats said the ruling establishes that there's a constitutional right to access court records in Wyoming — a finding he said takes state law even further than earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings on court access.
The ruling lays out a more consistent standard for the handling of such cases.
“The courts throughout Wyoming have been anything but uniform in their treatment of these cases,” Moats said. “This decision gives the lower courts guidance as to how they should these cases and guides them to keep these cases as open as possible.”
The supreme court ruled circuit judges can still follow state law that forbids state employees, other than presiding judges, from identifying people accused of sexual assault. The rulings states attorneys can file papers in circuit court with the defendant's name represented by initials or completely redacted.
“The ruling requires lawyers to redact these documents,” Moats said. “This has been done in district courts in the state.”
The supreme court said people could ask circuit court clerks to see all pending sexual assault cases to avoid having court personnel essentially confirm the prosecution of a particular person by handing over a single case. If the public recognized the defendant in court, the ruling states that still wouldn't violate the state law against public employees identifying them.
If a circuit court judge believed they had a compelling reason to restrict public information, the ruling states they must hold a hearing to give members of the public a chance to argue against closing the hearing. It states judges must make specific findings on the record about why they closed a hearing to allow higher courts to review the decision.
Parks entered Alford pleas to the charges in May 2013, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced last August to concurrent sentences of 44 to 50 years for first-degree sexual abuse of a minor and 60 years to life in prison for aggravated kidnapping.