What’s On Their Minds: Are Mandatory Juvenile Transfers to Adult Court Unconstitutional? State v. Quarterman

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

On July 8, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard 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

Sixteen-year-old Alexander Quarterman robbed a group of friends playing cards at gunpoint. Because of his age and because of the gun, the case was transferred to adult court, where Quarterman pled guilty to aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Quarterman appealed his conviction, arguing that Ohio’s mandatory transfer statute 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.The Ninth District Court of Appeals affirmed, with two of the three judges concurring in judgment only.

Read the oral argument preview of the case here.

Useful 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.)

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (the death penalty cannot be imposed for a crime committed as a juvenile)

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

J.D.B v. North Carolina, 131 S.Ct. 2394 (2011) (requiring courts to consider all attendant qualities of youth at the interrogation stage of the proceedings.)

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 C.P., 131 Ohio St.3d 513 (2012)   (a statute imposing automatic, lifelong registration and notification requirements on juvenile sex offenders violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the Ohio Constitution).

At Oral Argument

Quarterman’s Argument

Without exception, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that juveniles are different from adults, and that these differences must be considered at every stage of the proceedings. The Court has applied this kids-are-different concept in Roper, Graham and Miller, at the sentencing stage, and also in JDB, at the custodial interrogation stage. It simply does not make sense to fail to consider these same unique juvenile factors in the middle of the process, at the decision to transfer stage. But the state asks this court to uphold an Ohio law that requires courts to blind themselves to these unique features of youth, and requires transfer even for a juvenile that a judge considers redeemable.

We now know from the brain science that kids just don’t see the risks associated with their behavior, nor do they understand deterrence. Kids who use guns to commit an offense are not super-predators beyond redemption who need to be convicted felons for the rest of their lives. They make dumb decisions about using a gun for the same reasons the make other dumb decisions in their young lives.

Both this court and the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized that subjecting children to mandatory adult treatment requires heightened due process because of the reduced culpability and unique features of youth and the need for individualized determinations, which must be made by juvenile court judges and not legislatures.

If the transfer statute were discretionary, a court could still find the child to be beyond the rehabilitative efforts of the juvenile court. We as a society are much safer if a child who can be rehabilitated has that chance. Under current law they don’t. That violates due process

On the issue of waiver, while it is true that the constitutional arguments were not raised either in juvenile or adult court, the Supreme Court of Ohio does have the discretion to hear and decide these challenges. Additionally, since the transfer process itself is unconstitutional, that would mean the adult court never acquired subject matter jurisdiction, and Quarterman’s plea would be void. Subject matter jurisdiction can be raised at any time, and is never void.

State’s Argument 

The constitutional issues in this case were waived, because they were not raised either in juvenile court or common pleas court after transfer. The subject matter jurisdiction argument, raised by the defendant for the first time in his reply brief, is just a figleaf to enable the court to decide the merits of the constitutional claims.

Notwithstanding the spate of juvenile cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, not a single court has held mandatory transfer statutes unconstitutional. And putting aside the cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue here is whether the Ohio legislature can determine as a matter of law that older teenagers who commit first degree felonies armed with a gun must face prosecution in adult court. That is a policy question for the General Assembly, not the Supreme Court of Ohio. Society has a right to protect itself from the older juveniles who may be more likely to commit these types of offenses.

Furthermore, the transfer statutes are not punishment. They are merely the selection of a forum. We are not talking about punishment in adult court, we are just talking about the legislature’s determination that some juveniles must face the risk of punishment in adult court. There is nothing punitive about choosing a forum for prosecution.

What Was on their Minds 

Waiver

Justice French immediately asked defense counsel to address the issue of waiver before she addressed anything else. See above.

Was the constitutional challenge ever raised in juvenile court, Justice O’Donnell asked defense counsel in a series of questions on the waiver issue? Is the issue being raised here for the first time? Can it be raised for the first time in an appeals court? Has the defendant waived the right to these challenges by pleading guilty?

Without a fully developed record, how do we know all the bases for why the statute should be deemed unconstitutional, asked Justice O’Neill?

Is this a subject matter jurisdiction waiver issue, asked Justice Lanzinger?

The Constitutional Challenges

If the transfer statute were discretionary, would the defense still be challenging it, asked Justice Lanzinger (answer:no) Would reading out the mandatory provision save it? On what basis can the legislature make age-based distinctions? Later, she commented that the defense argument would be much stronger if the challenge were to a statute that said in every case a 16 and 17 year old would be sent to adult prison for specific crimes. Did the juvenile court judge at any point on the record say anything like ‘my hands are tied, I would keep you here if I didn’t have to bind you over’? Does the JDB case require this statute to be stricken down?

Since the gun is the impetus for the transfer, is the constitutional violation the fact there is no consideration for why this sixteen year old had the gun, asked Chief Justice O’Connor? Is there any situation under which the legislature could have constitutionally passed this statute?

You are asking the Court to re-write the statute, are you not, asked Justice O’Neill? (answer-no, just declare the existing one unconstitutional), Must the Court use rational basis, or is this strict scrutiny? Could the Court declare a portion of the statute unconstitutional and leave the rest alone? Later, O’Neill asked what was the difference, from an equal protection standpoint, between a sixteen year old with a gun and a fifteen year old with a gun. Isn’t the victim in the same peril, he asked?

Would the equal protection and due process arguments be available to a juvenile in an adult court, asked Justice O’Donnell? Later, he asked if the Court struck down the statute, would it be the first court in the country to do so? (answer: yes)

Separation of Powers

You are asking us to make a policy decision here, commented Chief Justice O’Connor. How are we to do that?

Is the matter of mandatory transfers for the General Assembly to deal with, asked Justice Lanzinger?

Youth

Since the defendant only got one year on the gun specification, rather than the three usually mandated by statute, wasn’t his youth taken into account in his adult court sentencing in this case, asked Chief Justice O’Connor?

A juvenile who is bound over with a gun offense faces mandatory penalties that would not be in play in juvenile court, commented Justice Pfeifer.

How it Looks from the Bleachers

To Professor Bettman

First of all, waiver is just huge here. I think the subject matter jurisdiction tacked on at the end by the defense in its reply brief to help salvage this issue was just as the prosecutor described it—a figleaf. Still, the Court did take this case in, knowing full well about the waiver issues. The Court does have the discretion to hear previously waived constitutional challenges—a discretion that is exercised most sparingly. If the Court does agree to address the merits here, it would undoubtedly issue strong and emphatic disclaimers about how this should not be viewed as standard procedure.

That said, I’m going to call this for the state, as are both student contributors. There are three very strong advocates for juvenile rights on the Court in Chief Justice O’Connor, and Justices Lanzinger and Pfeifer. They have been very responsive to and accepting of the kids-are-different jurisprudence from the U.S. Supreme Court. I suspect all three would undoubtedly favor legislation making such transfers discretionary rather than mandatory, but I think the step of the Court striking this statute down is too big a step, even for them, on separation of powers grounds. The mandatory sex offender registry struck down in In re C.P., authored by Pfeifer, was a much bigger legislative overstep. Justice O’Donnell, as I have written many times, is just not sympathetic to juvenile offenders, especially older ones. He doesn’t seem likely to get past waiver, but if he does is likely to deem this transfer statute an entirely appropriate policy choice by the General Assembly.

To Student Contributor Rebecca Campbell

This decision is going to turn on waiver, and how far into the policy waters the Court wants to wade. The first time I viewed the argument, I was convinced this is going to be a resounding decision in favor of the statute being constitutional; a second viewing gives me pause on that quick conclusion. The waiver issue is huge. Quarterman argues the transfer is jurisdictional, and as such, it falls within the realm of subject matter jurisdiction, which is never waiveable. Justice French first broached the waiver issue, but Justices O’Donnell and O’Neill latched on throughout both arguments like bulldogs that will not let go. It will be a hard sell to the Court to get around this issue, because they do not want to create a precedent allowing “waived” issues to get in front of the Court so easily.

If the Court gets beyond the waiver issue and determines it can rule on the merits, I think this turns into a close 4-3 case. Chief Justice O’Connor is going to vote against the policy arguments which would ultimately allow the Court to do the Legislature’s job. This Court isn’t a fan of wielding that kind of law-making power. However, the issue of the gun (and ultimately how the gun plays into mandatory sentencing in adult court, where it would not in juvenile court) and the otherwise arbitrary distinction between a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old for drawing the line between mandatory and discretionary are going to be key factors the justices weigh. Justice Pfeifer shed the only light on possibly supporting Quarterman’s argument when he pointed out the Court has previously pushed back against the Legislature in the area of juvenile sex offender policy; in his mind, the Court has a right to say the statute has gone too far and is unconstitutional. On the other hand, if Justice O’Neill is in favor of change to the statute, it sounds as if he’s in favor of making the presence of a gun a mandatory transfer for juveniles regardless of their age. That position could make for some strange bedfellows once the votes are counted.

Ultimately, Quarterman’s case hurts because it is in uncharted waters. Prior United States Supreme Court decisions have focused on how juvenile status factors into sentencing; there are no decisions on how to treat the status in mandatory transfer decisions. Quarterman never broached the issue as one which could be interpreted under the Ohio Constitution (neither in argument nor through development in the briefs), where the Court would potentially have stronger authority to find the statute unconstitutional.

This decision will be close, and likely with one or more dissents which address the broader issues. However, I think the Court will err on the side of finding the statute constitutional.

To Student Contributor Austin LiPuma

First, from a stylistic vantage point, I was not blown away by either attorney. While Quarterman’s counsel did seem well prepared and confident, much of the presentation was scattered. The State’s presentation was quite lackluster—I could not count a single instance in which the attorney fully answered a question and was often entirely non-responsive. Regardless, the case is a long shot for Quarterman.

The waiver issue was addressed immediately and never fully abandoned. However, the final nail in Quarterman’s coffin was hammered when Justice Lanzinger rhetorically asked if mandatory transfers are matters “left up for the General Assembly?” Quarterman was fighting an uphill battle from the onset because of the inherent deference granted to the legislature, but there were certainly some moments that shed light on the future handling of juvenile complexities.

Justice O’Neill asked the question that plagued my mind throughout the entirety of the case; what really is the distinction between a fifteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old wielding a firearm that would warrant a completely separate standard? In answering this, the Court will likely fall back on the policy reasons that prompted the legislature to mandate a bindover. A tenuous facet of Quarterman’s argument was exposed in reference to mitigation, as adult courts still factor in age during sentencing. The Court also entertained the argument from the State that mandatory bindovers are not punitive in nature but are just forum assigning. Justice O’Donnell did laud the Court as a “leader” in this area, but even leaders are sometimes hampered by procedures. Therefore, I believe the Court will rule against Quarterman and find that mandatory transfers are for the legislature to determine.

 

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