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Transparency vital in court proceedings

By: name newspaper
December 28, 2015 Updated: December 28, 2015 at 4:10 am
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photo - Judge's Gavel
Judge's Gavel 

"The general public shall not be excluded."

Those words, or a variation of them, appear throughout Colorado's laws, including in the children's code, and for good reason. We live in a representative republic, and that means the public has a right to know about, and participate in things involving, well, the public.

Having said that, we understand why the law allows certain proceedings - either in the courts specifically, or government in general - to operate behind closed doors: contracts, personnel matters, legal issues. Generally, those are the exceptions, and primarily because of a need to balance open government with personal privacy.

So we can understand why, for example, a juvenile's court proceedings may be closed to the public. In some cases, it isn't necessarily in the best interests of a child to hold open court proceedings when dealing with minors, particularly minors of a tender age.

But in this day when public shootings are seemingly becoming a weekly affair, including in our schools and in a state that has been rocked by very public mass shootings, court proceedings in matters that impact the lives and safety of others need to remain public, even if it involves a juvenile.

We are speaking, of course, of the recent case of a 13-year-old girl who allegedly threatened, in public and on social media, to "shoot up" her school, Mount Garfield Middle School.

In that case, Mesa County Magistrate William McNulty opted to close a bond hearing for the girl, Shauntelle Wilson, who allegedly made the threats, despite protestations from Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre, who said she had never seen such a request in her experience as a prosecutor.

Parents who also have children at that school have a right to know about the case, and what potential harm could have been done to their children.

Moreover, at a time when shootings seem to be occurring everywhere, don't we all have the right to know if our lives are in danger, regardless of the age of the one making the threats?

Given all that, it's hard to understand McNulty's justification in closing a simple bond hearing, which we fear could be a signal that he intends to close the rest of the court proceedings in this case. We all have a right to know, for example, how a 13-year-old could have access to a weapon. We all need to know if, for example, her threat was the product of bullying at school. We all want to know her motivations for doing this so we can address whatever issues we need to address to prevent it from happening elsewhere.

A troubled 13-year-old is deserving of our sympathy, understanding and intervention, but the magistrate does a disservice to one of the foundational pillars of our republic when he tries to limit access to information relevant to public safety.

The (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel

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