CHEYENNE — A district judge plans to issue a written decision on the state of Wyoming’s request to dismiss a media lawsuit challenging the closure of court proceedings for a man accused of kidnapping and sexually abusing a Glenrock girl.
The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office has asked District Judge Keith Kautz of Torrington to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Wyoming newspapers in Douglas, Glenrock and Casper, along with the Associated Press and the Wyoming Press Association.
Kautz, of Torrington, held a telephonic hearing on the state’s request Monday afternoon. At the end of the hearing, he asked lawyers in the case to suspend work on other pending motions because his decision on the dismissal request may ultimately decide the case.
The media organizations are challenging a lower court judge’s decision to close initial court proceedings in the prosecution of Robert J. Parks, 22, of Casper. Parks has pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and sexual abuse.
Parks waived his preliminary hearing. Circuit Judge I. Vincent Case Jr. never ruled on a request from the Casper Star-Tribune to open the initial court records before Parks’ case was transferred to district court.
The criminal case against Parks is pending. Attempts to reach prosecutors and Parks’ defense lawyer on Monday were unsuccessful.
Authorities issued an Amber Alert in May after the girl was discovered missing from her home in the early morning hours of May 19. She was found alive several hours later in an abandoned Jeep that had been reported stolen. Officials say a medical examination found she had been sexually abused.
Wyoming law prohibits public employees from releasing the identity of a person accused of sex crimes against a child unless charges are filed in district court. Circuit court judges usually hear evidence to decide whether the prosecution’s case is strong enough to proceed to district court.
The state law also prohibits public employees from identifying the minor victim. Media organizations typically don’t identify victims of sexual assault.
Cathleen Parker, senior assistant Wyoming attorney general, told Kautz on Monday that state law gives circuit court judges no discretion but to close hearings and records in such sex crime cases.
Kautz responded that state law doesn’t flatly say that the circuit court proceedings are closed or that documents must be kept confidential.
“Doesn’t it obviously intend that there be a consideration of lesser restrictive means that protect the identity of the alleged victim?” Kautz asked Parker.
Parker responded that if judges have discretion to employ less restrictive means, then judges would have to consider the variables of each particular case. She said such variability among different cases means that Kautz shouldn’t grant the media groups’ request for a declaration that circuit court records should be available in all sexual assault cases.
Bruce Moats, lawyer for the media groups, told Kautz that the First Amendment requires judges to hold criminal proceedings in public regardless of any contradictory state laws. He said federal courts have struck down laws in other states that sought to keep court hearings closed.
Kautz questioned Moats on his position, noting that Wyoming law prohibits release of the identity of the victim or alleged perpetrator until the case gets to district court.
“How can you have a preliminary hearing that’s open to the public without identifying the identity of the alleged actor?” Kautz said.
Moats responded that court records identifying victims could be redacted in some cases.
But Moats said that although state law prohibits any public employee from releasing the information, but doesn’t prohibit judges from doing so. “The court, under the First Amendment, can’t just close off the hearing based on (state law),” he said.