Judges increasingly closing public access to courts

Tulsa (AP) _ Judges across Oklahoma are increasingly closing public access to criminal hearings, and that's drawing concern from advocates for open government.  In nearly every county, special drug and mental health courts have become a popular way to handle nonviolent criminal defendants addicted to drugs or with mental illnesses.

Although state law does not say the hearings in drug and mental health courts should be closed, judges in many counties are closing them.  Judges cite as one reason a federal law that keeps medical records private, even though federal officials say the law does not apply to courts.

A statewide organization devoted to open government, FOI Oklahoma, is concerned about the trend.  FOI President Joey Senat says the judges are setting a dangerous precedent and that courts operate better when they are open to the public.

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