Oral Argument Preview: Are Mandatory Juvenile Transfers to Adult Court Unconstitutional? State of Ohio v. Alexander Quarterman

Update. On September 23, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the argument here.

On July 8, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Alexander Quarterman et al. 2013-1591. The central issue in this case is whether mandatory transfers of juvenile offenders to adult court violate state and federal constitutional rights.

Case Background

When Appellant Alexander Quarterman was sixteen-years-old he was indicted on three counts of aggravated robbery after using a gun to rob a group of friends playing cards. After the case commenced in juvenile court, it was transferred to adult court pursuant to R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b). Quarterman pled guilty in adult court to aggravated robbery and was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Quarterman appealed his conviction, arguing that Ohio’s mandatory transfer scheme is unconstitutional because it prohibits the juvenile court from considering the mitigating factor of youth before transferring the case to adult court in violation of due process, equal protection, and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Quarterman also argued ineffective assistance of counsel, for failure to challenge the constitutionality of the transfer statutes.

The Ninth District Court of Appealsaffirmed,with two of the three judges concurring in judgment only.

The first concurring opinion held that the limited argument on the ineffectiveness claim required rejection of that argument. The second agreed that Quarterman waived his constitutional challenges by not raising them at the trial level. In regard to the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the concurring judge found Quarterman failed to establish prejudice by proving that, but for the errors of counsel, the outcome of the proceedings would have been different.

Key Statutes and Precedent

R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) (Transfer is mandatory for offenses by juveniles involving a firearm)

R.C. 2152.12(A)(1)(b) (Transfer is mandatory for certain offenses if the child is sixteen or seventeen at the time of the act charged.)

Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966). (The waiver of a juvenile to adult court is “critically important” to review prior to the transfer because of the liberty deprivations at stake. Before a court imposes a transfer it must consider eight factors in order to preserve due process: (1) Seriousness of the offense; (2) Violence of the offense; (3) If the offense was against persons or property; (4) Merit of the complaint; (5) Desirability of keeping the case in one court; (6) Sophistication of the juvenile; (7) Criminal history of the juvenile; (8) Prospects for successful rehabilitation.)

In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). (Extended the Kent holding by adding that juvenile courts must comport with the due process requirements as established in the Fourteenth Amendment with an emphasis on “fundamental fairness.” Additionally, notice, counsel, and the right against self-incrimination are applicable to juveniles and adults alike.)

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (juvenile non-homicide offenders cannot be given a sentence of life without parole).

Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) (Children are less culpable than adults. Imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole on a juvenile is cruel and unusual punishment and thereby violates the Eighth Amendment).

In re D.W. 133 Ohio St.3d 434 (2012) (Amenable hearings may be waived so long as the waiver request is expressly stated on the record by the representing attorney, the request is made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently, the record indicates specific factors that ultimately influenced the court’s decision to permit the waiver.)

State v. Awan, 22 Ohio St. 3d 120 (1986) (constitutional issues not raised at the trial court level ” * * * need not be heard for the first time on appeal.)

In re M.D. 38 Ohio St. 3d 149 (1988) (The waiver doctrine in State v. Awan is discretionary.  Even where waiver is clear, the Court reserves the right to consider constitutional challenges to the application of statutes in specific cases of plain error or where the rights and interests involved may warrant it.)

Quarterman’s Argument

Quarterman first argues that mandatory transfers violate a juvenile’s right to due process by undermining the role and assessment of a juvenile court.  Quarterman argues he has a liberty interest in the individualized treatment available in juvenile court. Additionally, obligating sixteen-year-olds to face adult court irrebuttably forces their age to become an aggravating factor when youth should operate only as a mitigating factor. Mandatory transfer is incompatible with the due process requirements of Kent. Such transfers simultaneously compromise liberty and undermine the juvenile due process standard of fundamental fairness.

Quarterman’s equal protection argument asserts that no rational basis exists for a sixteen-year-old to face mandatory transfer, while a fifteen-year-old does not. While it makes sense to treat adults differently from children, there is no rational basis or empirical evidence to support disparate treatment of 16 and 17 years from younger children.

The final constitutional focus from Quarterman revolves around traditional notions of what constitutes  “cruel and unusual” punishment. In this particular facet of his argument, Quarterman relies on a historical analysis that traces the origins of juvenile court and its trajectory. He posits that courts are moving away from legislatively driven harsh punishment for juveniles, and back to the original goals of rehabilitation and protection.  Courts have long established special considerations for children and their culpability.

In light of recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent categorically forbidding certain punishments for juveniles, the Ohio high court should engage in a two-step analysis here, first considering whether there is a national consensus against the practice, and next determining if the practice is unconstitutional.

Drawing from various studies, Quarterman claims that the recent trend is to shy away from mandatory transfers. Furthermore, a court should independently review any alleged Eighth Amendment violations under a four-prong test: (1) culpability of offenders; (2) nature of the offenses; (3) severity of punishment; (4) penological interests. Quarterman submits that under this test, the nature of a mandatory transfer is a violation of Eighth Amendment rights.

Quarterman does not argue ineffective assistance of counsel in this appeal, nor does he claim plain error.

Quarterman addresses the issue of waiver in his reply brief.  He relies on the Court’s discretion to hear a constitutional challenge raised for the first time on appeal where “the rights and interests warrant it.” He also argues that a constitutionally infirm transfer process deprives the adult court of subject matter jurisdiction to receive the transfer or accept a guilty plea, arguing that subject matter jurisdiction is never waivable, and can be raised at any time.

State’s Argument

The State’s first argument is that Quarterman failed to preserve his constitutional claims, thus jurisdiction was improvidently granted.

Because this is a facial challenge to the statute it must be found unconstitutional in all respects, with dire implications, and is contrary to the strong presumption of constitutionality afforded to legislation.

Because Quarterman does not fit any of the categories banned in Roper, Graham, and Miller, U.S. Supreme Court precedent does not support his position. The state also notes that Quarterman cited no case from any jurisdiction finding mandatory transfer statutes unconstitutional.

Addressing the due process argument, the State notes that Kent dealt specifically with waivers and did not address mandatory transfers. So long as a juvenile is afforded proper due process, transfers are appropriate.

Turning to equal protection, the State highlights the fact that courts have already determined that the status of a juvenile is not a fundamental right, but a legislative grant. The statute passes the rational relation test. There is nothing fundamentally unfair about transferring juveniles close to adulthood for serious offenses.

The State rebuts the argument that the transfer is cruel and unusual by focusing on Article I Section 9of the Ohio Constitution.  Only those punishments that are “shocking to any reasonable person” are forbidden. A sixteen-year-old who commits heinous acts should not be precluded from a reasonable repercussion. Furthermore, the transfer of a juvenile to adult court is not an imposition of punishment; rather it is a mechanism to assign a forum. Based on this facial challenge, if the Court were to vacate the judgment, it would decimate the legislative safeguards in place against especially violent criminals.

Finally, the State reaches the relevant public policy arguments.  Mandatory transfer is in place to preserve safety, “reduce crime, and protect the public from such offenders.”

Quarterman’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. I

The mandatory transfer of juvenile offenders to adult court violates their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution.

Quarterman’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. II

The mandatory transfer of juvenile offenders to adult court violates their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution.

Quarterman’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. III

The mandatory transfer of juvenile offenders to adult court violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Ohio Constitution.

Amicus Curiae in Support of Quarterman

Two amicus briefs were filed in support of Quarterman.

The first brief, filed by Children’s Law Center, Inc. (CIC) on behalf of 18 total organizations, argues that Ohio’s mandatory bindover provisions should be eliminated because they do not align with the original policy goals of Ohio’s juvenile court system. CIC further argues attempts to reduce the use of mandatory bindover (including Ohio’s Serious Youth Offender laws) have not been successful, and that the elimination of mandatory bindover is supported by a wide range of national and Ohio stakeholders.

The second brief, filed by the Juvenile Law Center, the National Juvenile Defender Center, and the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, further supports Quarterman’s due process argument by proposing mandatory bindover statutes do not allow for individualized determinations regarding the propriety of prosecuting certain minors in adult criminal court rather than juvenile court. The Juvenile Law Center brief develops the due process argument through additional non-legal authorities which consider the issue from scientific, academic, and cultural perspectives.

Amicus Curiae in Support of the State

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine submitted an amicus brief in support of the State, which advances an argument similar to the Ninth District’s holding concerning Quarterman’s waiver of his constitutional rights. The brief further argues the legislative decision to require mandatory bindover to adult court for youth charged with certain serious offense does not violate due process, equal protection, or the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Student Contributors: Austin LiPuma and Rebecca Campbell

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