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Court Reverses Itself — Approves State’s Mandatory Bindover for Older Juveniles

The constitutional rights of older juveniles charged with certain serious crimes are not violated when they are automatically sent to trial in adult court, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A clause in the Ohio Constitution gives state lawmakers the right to determine the jurisdiction of the common pleas courts, the Court ruled in a split decision.

The ruling reversed State v. Aalim, a decision handed down five months ago in which a four-justice majority found the mandatory bindover law violated a juvenile’s right to due process as guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution.

The Court reconsidered its December 2016 ruling that found the constitutional rights of 16-year-old Matthew Aalim were violated when a Montgomery County juvenile court automatically transferred him to adult court for allegedly committing an act that would be considered aggravated robbery if committed by an adult, and using a gun to commit the crime.

Writing for today’s majority to reverse, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that reconsideration of the decision was appropriate because the Court had failed to consider that Article IV, Section 4(B) of the Ohio Constitution grants the General Assembly exclusive authority to define the jurisdiction of common pleas courts, including juvenile courts.

The effect of the prior ruling was to usurp the legislature’s “authority to define the jurisdiction of the courts of common pleas by impermissibly allowing a juvenile-division judge discretion to veto the legislature’s grant of jurisdiction to the general division of a court of common pleas over this limited class of juvenile offenders,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor objected to today’s majority “affording blind deference to the legislature, ignoring the requirements of due process and fairness, and artificially constraining the United States Supreme Court’s commands that we must consider juvenile offenders differently than adult offenders.” She noted that the right to due process of law is not limited to adults.

The majority “approves the arbitrary deprivation of access to the juvenile system” and “shows no respect for the judiciary’s role of ensuring that no legislative act contrary to the U.S. Constitution be allowed to stand,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote, maintaining that juveniles have a substantial liberty interest in retaining their juvenile status and that due process and fairness require a juvenile court’s determination of whether they are amenable for rehabilitation before being transferred to adult court. The chief justice was in the previous majority who ruled that the mandatory bindover procedure was unconstitutional.

The Court today vacated its earlier decision, and affirmed the Second District Court of Appeals’ judgment upholding the trial court’s decision to try Aalim as an adult.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith L. French, and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion. Justice DeWine also wrote a concurring opinion in which Justice O’Donnell joined.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer issued a brief written opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Fischer referenced an earlier Court decision where he stated he “voted to deny all motions asking this court to reconsider decisions issued before” he joined the Supreme Court in January 2017. He concurred with the remaining part of Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Justice William M. O’Neill joined Chief Justice O’Connor’s dissent and wrote a separate dissenting opinion.

Reconsideration of December Decision Appropriate
Justice Kennedy wrote that the General Assembly exercised its exclusive constitutional authority when it granted juvenile courts “exclusive jurisdiction over children alleged to be delinquent for committing acts that would constitute a crime if committed an adult.” However, in response to rising juvenile crime, lawmakers in 1996 passed what is now R.C. 2152.12, which “creates a narrow exception to the general rule” and requires 16- and 17-year-olds charged with certain offenses to be automatically transferred to adult court.

In its December decision, the Court ruled that a juvenile must receive an “amenability hearing” in which a juvenile judge has the discretion to transfer a case to adult court or keep the minor in the juvenile system, which is civil in nature and focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. But today’s majority opinion stated that the ruling gave juvenile judges veto power over the legislature’s decision to grant common pleas courts jurisdiction over a limited class of juvenile offenders, which made reconsideration appropriate.

Aalim’s Case Transferred in 2014
In 2013 a complaint was filed alleging that Aalim had engaged in conduct that would be considered aggravated robbery if committed by an adult. The complaint also contained a firearm specification. The state requested that the juvenile court relinquish jurisdiction and transfer him to common pleas court to be tried as an adult. In 2014 Aalim appeared in juvenile court with an attorney and his mother. After a hearing, the court found that Aalim was 16 years old at the time of the alleged offense, and there was probable cause to believe he committed the alleged conduct. The juvenile court recognized it no longer had jurisdiction and transferred the case to the general division of the common pleas court.

An indictment then charged Aalim with two counts of aggravated robbery with firearm specifications. He filed a motion to transfer the case back to juvenile court, alleging the mandatory bindover violated his rights to due process and equal protection as well as the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court denied the request, and Aalim pleaded no contest to the two counts of aggravated robbery. He did so in exchange for a dismissal of the gun charges. Consistent with his plea agreement, Aalim was sentenced to eight years in prison in the form of two four-year prison terms running consecutively.

The Second District affirmed the trial court’s rejection of Aalim’s challenges to the mandatory-bindover statutes. Aalim appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, but dropped his argument regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

In December 2016, weeks before her compulsory retirement from the Court, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote that the mandatory bindover laws violated the due process rights of juveniles guaranteed by Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution. The Montgomery County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office sought reconsideration in January, and the Court agreed to revisit the opinion.

Constitutional Rights Examined
In addressing Aalim’s original claims, the Court concluded that the mandatory bindover of certain juvenile offenders under R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) and R.C. 2152.12(A)(1)(b) did not violate due process or equal protection as guaranteed by the Ohio and U.S. constitutions.

Aalim maintained that juveniles have a due process right to an individualized assessment by a juvenile judge at an amenability hearing. He also argued that the General Assembly’s singling out of a special class of juvenile offenders whose cases must go to common pleas court violates the “fundamental fairness” requirements of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment and the Due Course of Law clause of the Ohio Constitution.

The Court stated those provisions protect fundamental rights and liberties that are “deeply rooted” in the nation’s history and traditions. It noted that Ohio adopted its Due Course of Law clause in 1851 and the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. The nation’s first juvenile court was not established until more than 30 years later, and Ohio did not establish juvenile courts throughout the state until 1937. The legislature added the amenability hearing in 1969.

“Because Ohio’s Due Course of Law Clause and the federal Due Process Clause both predate the creation of juvenile courts in Ohio and throughout the United States, these provisions cannot have created a substantive right to a specific juvenile-court proceeding,” the majority concluded.

The hearings cannot be “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition,” the opinion stated. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 Moore. v. E. Cleveland decision, the Court found that the hearings also are not “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”

The Court found Aalim’s claim that the process was not fundamentally fair unpersuasive and stated that the U.S. Supreme Court has not expressly defined what “fundamental fairness” means in a juvenile proceeding. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 United States v. Kent decision, the majority found for the purpose of binding over a juvenile, a juvenile’s due process rights are met when a juvenile court conducts a hearing in which the juvenile is represented by an attorney and issues a decision stating the court’s reasons for transferring the case.

The majority rejected the dissenting justices’ argument that the Kent decision required the juvenile judge make an individual amenability assessment of Aalim in order for the process to be fair. Justice Kennedy wrote that Kent was distinguishable. The General Assembly has the constitutional authority to set the jurisdictional limits of juvenile courts, and it has determined that older juveniles who commit murder, are repeat felony offenders, or commit felonies with a firearm, are under the jurisdiction of general division of the court of common pleas. Kent’s analysis was based on the unique requirements of an applicable District of Columbia statute, the Juvenile Court Act, and the United States Supreme Court went “no further.”

State Had Rational Reason for Bindover Law
The Court noted the laws impacting a fundamental constitutional right or a “suspect class” of citizens must meet a “strict scrutiny” test. But if neither is involved, the Court uses a lower “rational basis” test to determine if a law is constitutional.

A “suspect class” is one that is “subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection,” the opinion stated. The Court concluded that under Ohio and federal law, juveniles have not been considered a suspect class and declined to define them as one now.

The opinion also maintained that, as with a due process claim, there is no fundamental right to an amenability hearing because it is not deeply rooted in history or tradition, or implicit in the concept of ordered liberty. The Court reviewed the statutes under the rational basis test, and noted that under rational-basis review, substantial deference is granted to the General Assembly’s judgment. Statutes are constitutional if they are “rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.”

Justice Kennedy noted that juvenile arrests for violent crimes increased between 1965 and 1990 and that the public demanded tougher treatment of juveniles. In response, the General Assembly enacted the mandatory-bindover procedure.

“The mandatory bindover statutory scheme is rationally related to the legitimate governmental purpose of increased punishments for serious juvenile offenders, so it does not violate juveniles’ right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution,” the opinion concluded.

Majority Ignores Requirements of Due Process and Fairness, Dissent Asserts
Chief Justice O’Connor’s dissent noted that “there should be no debate that an alleged juvenile offender has a substantial liberty interest in retaining juvenile status.” But the limited hearing provided under the mandatory-transfer statute in which the juvenile judge has no discretion to consider the child’s maturity and amenability to rehabilitation is “fundamentally inadequate and therefore unconstitutional.”

The chief justice also wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kent decision emphasized that a juvenile-transfer hearing is a “critically important” proceeding that “must measure up to the essentials of due process and fair treatment.” She concluded today’s majority interpreted Kent too narrowly.

“Ohio’s mandatory transfer statute creates a system in which a judge has no right to even inquire into a juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation, let alone weigh it,” the dissent stated. “Without allowing a judge to conduct any inquiry beyond probable cause or age, there is significant risk of turning a delinquent capable of rehabilitation into a lifelong criminal.”

The dissent noted that it has been more than 50 years since the Kent decision and the U.S. Supreme Court has more recently reiterated the distinction between juveniles and adults in criminal proceedings. Ohio and other state courts would benefit from more clarity from the U.S. Supreme Court as to what protections juveniles are entitled to prior to transfer to adult court.

2015-0677. State v. Aalim, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-2956.

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