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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Guardian Ad Litem Must Be Appointed for Juveniles if Parents Are Deceased

A juvenile whose parents are deceased does not need to request that a guardian ad litem (GAL) be appointed for an “amenability” hearing in juvenile court, but a judge must appoint one as required by law, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In juvenile proceedings, a GAL is appointed to represent the “best interests of a child.” If the judge fails to make the appointment, the juvenile must prove the error affected the outcome of the trial. In a 4-3 ruling, the Supreme Court decided a 16-year-old Columbus male did not prove the failure to have a GAL appointed would have changed the result of his amenability hearing. After that hearing, he was transferred to the general division of the court of common pleas, pleaded guilty to several charges, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy declared that the nature of an “amenability hearing,” where a juvenile court determines whether a minor can be rehabilitated in the juvenile system or transferred the general division of common pleas court to face adult charges, has criminal aspects. To overturn a decision based on a plain error made by the judge, the minor must prove the outcome would have been different if the error did not occur.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote the standard set by the majority is “unattainable” and “sets the bar so high that it is difficult to imagine a successful” challenge to a judge’s failure to appoint a GAL.

Three Victims Shot in Two-Day Period
When Raymond Morgan was 16 years old, he and other youths went on a two-day crime spree during which three victims were shot.

Prosecutors filed three complaints in Franklin County juvenile court alleging that Morgan was “delinquent” for committing acts that would have been crimes if committed by an adult. The first complaint alleged Morgan and an accomplice assaulted two separate victims, shooting one in the back, and the other in the leg. The second complaint alleged Morgan, joined by two accomplices, robbed, assaulted, and kidnapped a victim. The victim was shot in the leg by one of the accomplices. The third complaint alleged Morgan received stolen property.

Prosecutors asked the juvenile court to transfer the case to the common pleas court general division to try Morgan as an adult.

Morgan Loses Parents During Proceedings
At the time of his arrest, Morgan’s father was dead, but his mother was present at his first preliminary hearing in March 2012. She also attended a second hearing in June, where a continuance was requested, and at a probable cause hearing in August where Morgan stipulated that there was probable cause that he committed the offenses. The judge then ordered a social and mental health examination for him, and scheduled an amenability hearing.

In late August, Dr. Barbra Bergman conducted an evaluation of Morgan, which included interviewing his mother to get background information on her son. Shortly after the interview, Morgan’s mother died.

At the October amenability hearing, prosecutors argued that Morgan should be transferred to adult court for a number of reasons, including the physical harm and economic harm suffered by the victims, and that Morgan acted as part of a gang, used a gun to commit the crimes, and had a record of prior offenses.

Morgan’s attorney opposed the transfer, citing Bergman’s psychological report that indicated a high probability the youth could be rehabilitated in the juvenile system. At the hearing, Morgan’s attorney informed the court of the recent death of Morgan’s mother, but neither he nor Morgan requested a GAL. The attorney noted that a woman described as Morgan’s “godsister” was present, and that woman stated she had “taken over the role” as Morgan’s mother.

After listening to the arguments of both parties, examining all the evidence, and following the statutory guidelines, the judge ruled Morgan was not amenable to rehabilitation in juvenile court, and transferred the case to adult court.

Morgan Faces Adult Charges
Morgan was charged with 13 criminal counts, including three counts of felonious assault, three counts of theft, and two counts of robbery. Each count included a firearm specification. He pleaded guilty to five charges, including burglary, aggravated robbery, and felonious assault, each with a firearm specification. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Morgan appealed the decision to the Tenth District Court of Appeals raising several issues, including that the juvenile court committed “plain error” when it failed to appoint a GAL at the amenability hearing. He claimed that error violated a juvenile court rule and a state law, R. 151.281(A)(1).

The Tenth District faulted the juvenile court for failing to appoint the GAL, but concluded that Morgan was unable to show he was prejudiced by the lack of an appointment. The Tenth District ruled the trial court committed a sentencing error and remanded the case for resentencing.

Morgan appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Guardian Law Analyzed
R.C. 2151.281(A)(1) provides, “The court shall appoint a guardian ad litem ... to protect the interest of a child in any proceeding concerning an alleged or adjudicated delinquent child or unruly child when ... [t]he child has no parent, guardian, or legal custodian.”

The Court explained that when a state law uses the term “shall” it means “mandatory” unless the law clearly includes language to not interpret it as mandatory. It clarified the law applies when a child has no parent, guardian, or legal custodian.

The opinion explained that Morgan had no parent, guardian, or custodian during his amenability hearing, and the presence of the godsister did not meet the legal requirement. The juvenile court did not find the godsister was Morgan’s guardian or custodian, and there was no evidence submitted that she had been appointed by a court to serve in that role.

The law places no requirement on the juvenile to request the GAL, and the juvenile court must follow the law’s directive to appoint a GAL.

Court’s Error Weighed
The Supreme Court explained that a “plain error” is one that is obvious and affects the outcome of the proceedings. The Court explained that there are two different standards for assessing the significance of a plain error. One is for criminal proceedings and the other is for civil proceedings.

In criminal proceedings, the Court explained, a plain error finding invalidates a judicial proceeding if the error affected the outcome of the trial. The Court noted the criminal plain error review is incorporated in the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure as Crim.R. 52(B).

The Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure do not have a plain error standard of review for civil proceedings, the Court noted. However, beginning in 1985, the Court found a plain error finding should apply to a judicial error in civil cases. But a plain error in civil proceedings did not require a showing that the error impacted the outcome of the case, only that it “seriously affects the basic fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial process,” and challenges the legitimacy of the judicial process.

First Application to Juvenile Delinquency Proceeding
The majority opinion stated this is the first case in which the Court has determined which plain error standard of review applies to a juvenile delinquency proceeding. Juvenile proceedings are civil, not criminal, in nature, the Court explained; however, there are criminal aspects to juvenile court proceedings.

The majority concluded the criminal standard should apply to delinquency proceedings. Morgan had argued that under the state law, there is no requirement that he has to prove he was impacted by the failure to appoint a GAL and the fact that one was not appointed invalidated his transfer to adult court and his subsequent convictions.

“There is no doubt that an obvious error occurred when the juvenile court failed to appoint a GAL for Morgan at the amenability hearing. However, showing that an error occurred is not enough. Morgan also has the burden to prove that the error affected the outcome of the proceeding, that is, that he would not have been bound over to the adult court,” the opinion stated.

The Court noted Morgan was represented by an attorney throughout the process, who pointed to the expert psychological report during the hearing. The opinion noted that Morgan’s mother, who was present at the prior hearings, also provided information for the expert report.

At oral argument Morgan’s attorney admitted that a juvenile’s attorney and GAL might reiterate some of the same arguments against a juvenile’s transfer to adult court. Morgan’s counsel also speculated that they might have conflicting opinions about whether the juvenile should be transferred. However, the Court concluded that “speculation” was not enough, and certainly did not prove Morgan was impacted by the lack of a GAL and affirmed the Tenth District’s decision that the trial court did not commit plain error when it failed to appoint a GAL for Morgan prior to deciding to transfer him to adult court.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the majority opinion.

Dissent Objects to Criminal Plain Error Standard
In a dissent, the chief justice noted that the majority faulted Morgan for speculating about the outcome if a GAL were appointed, but engaged in its own speculation to decide that a GAL would not have changed the outcome of Morgan’s amenability hearing.

The chief justice asserted the higher standard for criminal proceedings is appropriate for adult cases because the errors often arise during challenges to admit evidence or an issue dealing with the jury. A reviewing court can look at those types of claimed errors and ascertain whether the outcome would have changed if no error was made.

However, the dissenting opinion stated, “juvenile proceedings are fundamentally different than adult criminal ones. Although it is true that there are criminal aspects of juvenile-delinquency proceedings, courts have consistently found juvenile-court proceedings to be ‘civil in nature’ and extended criminal-law protections only when they act as just that—protections.”

The dissent noted that it is impossible to know how a judge’s discretionary ruling to transfer a juvenile would be affected by a GAL just as the Tenth District found it had no way of knowing what a guardian would have argued. The dissent concluded that it “raises serious fairness concerns” to make Morgan prove the outcome would have changed under these circumstances.

“Because the juvenile court’s failure to appoint a GAL was an obvious error that seriously affected the basic fairness, integrity, and reputation of the judicial process, I would vacate Morgan’s conviction and remand the cause for the juvenile court to conduct a proper amenability hearing after the appointment of a GAL,” the chief justice concluded.

Justices Judith L. French and William M. O’Neill joined the dissent.

2015-0924. State v. Morgan, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-7565.

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