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Court Rejects Public Access in Ohio Child-Custody Case

November 5, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today left intact a ruling by Ohio’s highest court in a nationally publicized child-custody case that said the public has no right to attend juvenile court proceedings.

The justices, without comment, rejected a Columbus, Ohio, newspaper’s arguments that the Constitution requires most juvenile court hearings to be public.

Lawyers for The Columbus Dispatch argued that past rulings establishing a public right to attend criminal trials even over a defendant’s objections should be extended to juvenile court proceedings as well.

But the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that ″juvenile courts differ significantly from courts of general jurisdiction.″ It added that juvenile proceedings ″are usually private″ and their records confidential.

The dispute grew out of a ″surrogate mother″ contract in which Richard and Beverly Reams hired a woman to have a child for them.

The woman, who was artificially inseminated with sperm from an unrelated donor, gave birth in early 1985 to Tessa Reams. The Reamses took custody of Tessa when she was a day old.

The couple filed for divorce two years later, and both sought custody of Tessa. The custody issue was not resolved as part of their divorce, and in 1987 Mrs. Reams, then known as Beverly Seymour, sued her ex-husband seeking permanent custody of Tessa.

While the suit was pending, Ms. Seymour turned to the national news media in the hope that such exposure would help her maintain custody.

″I’ve been Tessa’s mother in fact for four years and I’m living in terror that the court’s going to take her away and put her up for adoption with some strangers,″ Ms. Seymour was quoted as telling The New York Times early last year.

Because of such publicity, the child’s court-appointed guardian sought to exclude the public and news media from all hearings on Tessa’s future. The guardian also sought a ″gag order″ under which Ms. Seymour would be barred from discussing the case with news reporters.

Franklin County Juvenile Court Judge Ronald Solove ordered the custody hearings closed to the public and issued the gag order against Ms. Seymour.

A state appeals court blocked enforcement of both orders, ruling that they unduly interfered with what it called a constitutional right of public access to juvenile courts.

But on appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court last June said the appeals court was wrong.

The state court said such proceedings may be closed to the public if there is a reasonable chance the child could be harmed by public access and if the potential for harm outweighs the benefits of public access.

After the state Supreme Court’s ruling, the custody hearing over Tessa was conducted in secret last August. Custody was awarded to Richard Reams.

When Reams went to his ex-wife’s home in Ashville, Ohio, a week later to pick up Tessa, Ms. Seymour allegedly shot and killed him. She has been charged with murder in the case but has not been tried.

After the killing, Judge Solove granted a request by The Columbus Dispatch and released the record of the August custody hearing.

But lawyers for the newspaper said the legal dispute is not moot because it could arise in another case.

The case is The Dispatch Printing Co. vs. Solove, 90-431.