July 13, 2022

Munger Tolles Secures Pro Bono Appellate Victory Expanding Press Access to Juvenile Records

Munger Tolles secured a California Court of Appeal victory on behalf of an investigative reporter with the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting program, solidifying the press’ access to juvenile records when investigating tragedies in the juvenile dependency system.

Garrett Therolf, formerly a reporter with the LA Times, had sought records regarding two siblings who died under suspicious circumstances in Madera County in 2015 and 2020.  

California law makes the juvenile case files of deceased minors presumptively available to the press or public, given the vital public interests at stake in such cases. But the juvenile court denied Mr. Therolf’s request for the records without a hearing.

Partner Jordan Segall filed an extraordinary writ on Mr. Therolf’s behalf raising several issues of first impression in the Fifth District Court of Appeal, including whether the two children were within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and therefore subject to the disclosure statute despite the fact that they were not in foster care when they died, and whether a court may consider other factors other than potential harm to the surviving siblings in determining whether a deceased child’s juvenile records can be released.

Following oral argument, the Fifth District Court of Appeal vacated the juvenile court’s order and granted the writ on June 28, holding both that the children were within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and that the juvenile court prejudicially erred when it denied Mr. Therolf’s request without a hearing and without conducting an adequate ex parte review of the records at issue. 

The opinion significantly solidifies journalists’ rights to accessing juvenile records when investigating the suspicious deaths of children. 

Munger Tolles has a longstanding commitment to providing pro bono legal services in child welfare matters such as representing foster children in two separate challenges involving foster care systems and protocols in New Mexico and Washington.