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People v. J.R.

August 19, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoffman

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable William J. HIbbler, Judge Presiding.

The minor respondent, J.R., appeals from an order entered by the trial court authorizing the release of his juvenile court records to Diversified Realty Group, Inc. (Diversified Realty), a defendant in a civil lawsuit that arose out of the same incident that precipitated the juvenile court proceedings. On appeal, the respondent contends that the trial court erred in releasing his juvenile court records to Diversified Realty because it was not entitled to the release of the documents under section 1-8 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Act) (705 ILCS 405/1-8 (West 1996)).In November 1995, the respondent was adjudicated delinquent for the first degree murder of a five-year-old boy. The incident that led to the victim's death occurred in a vacant apartment at a Chicago public housing complex. Following the delinquency proceedings, the victim's estate filed a civil lawsuit (Case No. 95 L 05893) against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA); Digby Detective and Security Agency, Inc., which provided security for the complex; and Diversified Realty, which managed the property. In 1998, Diversified Realty filed a petition in juvenile court, seeking the release of the respondent's criminal records and psychological reports, as well as the transcripts from the juvenile court proceedings.

At the hearing on the petition, Diversified Realty withdrew its request for the release of the respondent's psychological reports, but argued that the civil lawsuit was based on the same facts as the juvenile proceeding, and therefore, the juvenile court records were admissible in the civil lawsuit under section 1-10(1)(d) of the Act (705 ILCS 405/1-10(1)(d) (West 1996)). Diversified also offered to obtain a protective order in the civil case prior to receiving the records to insure the confidentiality of the information contained therein.

The respondent argued that section 1-8 of the Act governed the release of juvenile court records and that Diversified Realty was not listed among those persons or entities identified in subsection A as being authorized to inspect and copy his juvenile court records. The State declined to take a position on this matter and did not file a brief on appeal.

At the close of the hearing, the trial court entered an order, stating:

"[Diversified Realty] may receive the records of the above juveniles to include the transcript of proceedings (trial only) ***. [Diversified Realty] may also have copies of the adjudication orders with names redacted. No other records shall be disclosed. [Diversified Realty] and othe[r] parties shall keep the records and information contained therein confidential and shall not disclose the information or records outside of 95 L 05893. Counsel for [Diversified Realty] will seek a protective order in 95 L 05893 before releasing records to the attorneys of record." (Emphasis added.) The respondent requested a stay of the order pending the outcome of this appeal, but the trial court denied his request. The respondent has appealed from this order.

Initially, we reject Diversified Realty's contention that this court lacks jurisdiction to consider the merits of the respondent's claim. Under Supreme Court Rule 660(a), "[a]ppeals from final judgments in delinquent minor proceedings, except as otherwise specifically provided, shall be governed by the rules applicable to criminal cases." 134 Ill. 2d R. 660(a). Thus, as asserted by the respondent, the basis for our jurisdiction lies in Rule 603, which provides that all appeals in criminal cases, other than where a United States' or Illinois' statute has been held invalid or where a sentence of death was imposed, shall be taken to the appellate court. 134 Ill. 2d R. 603.

Diversified Realty, however, contends that Rule 660(b) rather than 660(a) applies to this case. Rule 660(b) provides that "[i]n all other proceedings under the Juvenile Court Act, appeals from final judgments shall be governed by the rules applicable to civil cases." Diversified Realty argues that when this matter was brought before the trial court, not only had the respondent been adjudicated delinquent, but he had already appealed that determination. Based on these circumstances, Diversified Realty contends that this matter should be considered as an "other proceeding", and therefore, the rules governing civil appeals must be applied. As such, it argues that we do not have jurisdiction over this case because the order entered by the trial court failed to satisfy the requirements of Supreme Court Rule 304 (155 Ill. 2d R. 304)). However, even if we were to consider the basis for our jurisdiction under the rules governing civil appeals, we would find this argument meritless.

Generally, to confer jurisdiction upon the appellate court in civil cases, the judgment or order appealed from must be final. 134 Ill. 2d R. 303; Rice v. Burnley, 230 Ill. App. 3d 987, 990, 596 N.E.2d 105 (1992). An order is final if it fixes absolutely and finally the rights of the parties and decides the litigation on the merits so that the only thing remaining is execution of the judgment, if affirmed. City of Chicago Heights v. Living Word Outreach Full Gospel Church and Ministries, Inc., 302 Ill. App. 3d 564, 567, 707 N.E.2d 53 (1998). Under Rule 304(A), if an action involves multiple parties or claims for relief, a final judgment that does not dispose of the entire proceeding can be immediately appealed only if the trial court makes an express written finding that there is no just reason to delay the enforcement or appeal of that order. 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a). Rule 304(b) merely provides five exceptions to the requirement contained in Rule 304(a). 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(b). Clearly, no matters remained pending before the trial court at the time of this appeal; and thus, Rule 304 is inapplicable to the case at bar. Consequently, under either Rule 660(a) or 660(b), we have jurisdiction over the respondent's appeal.

Nonetheless, before reaching the merits of the case, we must address two other preliminary matters.

First, we must determine whether this appeal is moot because the respondent's juvenile court records have already been released to Diversified Realty. As a general rule, a court of review will dismiss an appeal where it has notice of facts which show that only moot questions or mere abstract propositions are involved or where the substantial questions raised in the trial court no longer exist. People v. D.T., 287 Ill. App. 3d 408, 410, 678 N.E.2d 326 (1997). One exception to the mootness doctrine allows a court to resolve an otherwise moot issue if it involves a substantial public interest. Bonaguro v. County Officers Electoral Board, 158 Ill. 2d 391, 395, 634 N.E,2d 712 (1994). The criteria for the application of the public interest exception are: (1) the public nature of the question; (2) the desirability of an authoritative determination for the purpose of guiding public officers, and (3) the likelihood that the question will recur. In re A Minor, 127 Ill. 2d 247, 257, 537 N.E.2d 292 (1989). A clear showing of each criterion is required to bring a case within the public interest exception. Bonaguro, 158 Ill. 2d at 395.

The present case clearly satisfies the foregoing requirements. Certainly, issues involving the care, protection, and well-being of minors are of serious public concern. The Act was specifically designed to help protect and rehabilitate delinquent minors. Thus, the release of a minor's juvenile court records is of particular concern. Section 1-8 of the Act, which governs the confidentiality and accessibility of juvenile court records, was enacted in 1988, and we have found no cases which have addressed the issue presently before us. We also note that as more civil complaints based on the criminal conduct of juveniles are filed in the circuit court, the issue will most likely reappear. We, therefore, believe that an authoritative guide is needed to help resolve future controversies over this issue. Under these circumstances, we find that this case involves an issue of substantial public interest, and therefore, should not be dismissed on the basis of mootness.

Finally, before addressing the respondent's contentions, we must also determine the appropriate standard of review to be applied in this case. The respondent urges us to consider his appeal de novo; whereas, Diversified Realty maintains that we should review the case under an abuse of discretion standard. The sole issue on appeal is whether the trial court has the authority to release juvenile court records to a defendant in a civil lawsuit, where the minor is not a party in the civil action, but the action arose from the same incident that gave rise to the juvenile court proceedings. As we stated earlier, section 1-8(A) of the Act governs the inspection and copying of juvenile court records, and therefore, the resolution of this dispute is purely a matter of statutory construction. Because the construction of a statute is a question of law (People v. Robinson, 172 Ill. 2d 452, 457, 667 N.E.2d 1305 (1996)), we shall review the merits of this cause de novo.

This court's primary objective when construing the meaning of a disputed statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. People v. Zaremba, 158 Ill. 2d 36, 40, 630 N.E.2d 797 (1994). The most reliable indicator of legislative intent is the language of the statute itself. People v. Tucker, 167 Ill. 2d 431, 435, 657 N.E.2d 1009 (1995). The statutory language must be given its plain and ordinary meaning, and where that language is clear and unambiguous, we must ...

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