Safe Choices 9 – Courtroom door swings open briefly

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by Paul Lefebvre copyright the Chronicle December 23, 2008
NEWPORT — The press won a qualified victory last week by being allowed access to a Family Court hearing involving a petition by a Safe Choices client to get out the program and be served by a private guardian of his own choice.

Judge Robert Bent opened the courtroom, but said he may reverse his ruling, depending on issues that come before the bench as the hearings continue.
The case involves 30-year-old George St. Francis, who has been a participant in the program for years. Currently he is a resident of the program’s Lowell House, where he is under 24-hour supervision.
Safe Choices was founded about 15 years ago as a way to deal with sex offenders who, because of low intelligence, are incompetent to stand trial in criminal court. The program has grown to include men like Mr. St. Francis, men who had not been charged with a sex crime, but were deemed to be at risk of offending.
Over the last few months, however, Mr. St. Francis has been showing up in three of the county’s four courts: District Court, Family Court, and Probate Court. And although each court serves a separate and distinct legal function, in the case of Mr. St. Francis, the arguments have been strikingly similar.
Mr. St. Francis is a man who wants out and wants his case to see the light of day.
“The subject has expressed a strong desire to have these proceedings held in public and has expressively waived any individual right to privacy, which he may be entitled to under law,” argued Newport attorney Philip White, who is representing the Chronicle of Barton.
Arguments to open a procedure, which are closed by law, were held in camera, out of view of the public.
But in a motion for access filed on the day of the hearing, Mr. White argued that a closed-door proceeding would violate Mr. Francis’ constitutional rights.
“The Subject of these proceedings has a right to public review of his claims that the government has arbitrarily, capriciously, and unlawfully deprived him of his liberty,” wrote Mr. White in a three-page brief.
Judge Bent opened the courtroom, but cautioned that his ruling only applied to Friday’s proceedings. That decision could be reversed, he said, if issues came up touching on Mr. St. Francis’ right to privacy.
“May revisit it; not denying it,” he said in regards to the paper’s motion for access.
Still uncertain is whether the paper will have to resubmit its arguments for access prior to the next round of hearings.
A letter to the Family Court Clerk from Mr. White Monday requested he be kept informed on scheduling so “I can continue to represent the Chronicle on this issue at any time a motion to close certain aspects of these proceeding may be made.”
The December 22 letter also requests an opportunity for the paper to participate in a review of the case files to determine what should be kept confidential and sealed.
In his decision to open Friday’s hearing to reporters, Judge Bent noted that the issues before the bench were procedural and would not violate Mr. St. Francis’ privacy.
Little came out of the hearing except a ruling that Family Court has exclusive jurisdiction in the case. Judge Bent handed down that ruling in response to the state’s objection that a Probate Court order this fall was out of line.
Issued by Probate Court Judge John Monette, that order sternly directed the Office of Public Guardian and much of the Safe Choices staff “to refrain from any and all acts constituting abuse, retaliation, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, exploitation, threat, or harassment” of Mr. St. Francis, who is under state guardianship.
While Judge Bent vacated that order last Friday, still pending is the issue of whether Mr. St. Francis will be allowed to choose his own guardian and leave Safe Choices.
At Friday’s hearing Mr. St. Francis was represented by Morrisville attorney Tim Yarrow. Also present was Brighton attorney Daniel Keenan, who represents Janet Reed, an Albany woman who has petitioned the court to act as Mr. St. Francis’ private guardian.
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