In a case of first impression, a federal appellate court held that judges of a county youth court are immune from suit under certain federal laws designed to protect the constitutional rights of juveniles.
The decision brings to an end, for now, the federal government’s attempts to get the youth court to change practices that were allegedly part of a “school-to-prison pipeline.” The opinion will likely have a broader impact that chills future investigations into other juvenile court systems, say ABA Section of Litigation leaders.
The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” Problem
“The simplest way to think about the school-to-prison pipeline is as a change in approach to disciplining students: behavior that used to be handled in the principal’s office—a school yard fight, or somebody being disorderly in class—is getting pushed to juvenile courts to resolve,” says Brent Pattison, member of the Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee.
The rising number of referrals from schools to juvenile courts coupled with already strained limited resources has led to due process violation concerns. Problems have included “delayed detention hearings, not taking seriously probable cause findings, not appointing counsel quickly enough to handle detention hearings effectively, insufficient access to counsel for the kids prior to detention hearings, and not having meaningful hearings with all the time necessary to figure out whether a violation occurred that would warrant some kind of response,” laments Pattison.
Mississippi’s Alleged School-to-Prison Pipeline
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the juvenile justice system of Lauderdale County, Mississippi, exhibited many of these problematic characteristics. On December 1, 2011, the DOJ notified the City of Meridian and Lauderdale County of its intent to conduct an investigation of the Meridian Police Department and the youth court pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141 (currently codified at 34 U.S.C. § 12601). Section 12601 makes it unlawful “to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
The DOJ’s initial investigation concluded that the two judges of the youth court, acting in their official capacities, violated juveniles’ constitutional rights. Among other findings, the DOJ determined that the judges violated the procedural due process rights of children by incarcerating them without a timely determination of probable cause or meaningful access to an attorney.
Following the investigation, the DOJ filed a complaint in federal district court seeking an injunction against the alleged unconstitutional practices, an order requiring the defendants to promulgate and effectuate policies more protective of constitutional rights, and an order directing the creation of alternatives to detention and juvenile justice processes for children.
The Youth Court Pushes Back
The youth court judges rejected the DOJ’s position. While the other defendants in the lawsuit eventually settled, the judges and Lauderdale County fought the charges. The judges denied violating any constitutional rights, claimed absolute immunity for actions taken in their official capacities, and asserted that the Rooker–Feldman doctrine precluded the federal district court from exercising appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the youth court.
The DOJ took the position that the youth court was a “governmental agency,” within the meaning of Section 12601, so as to remove immunity from suit. The district court did not agree. The court concluded that a “governmental agency” plainly excluded the judiciary, and dismissed the DOJ’s complaint with prejudice.
The DOJ appealed. The court of appeals agreed with the district court and affirmed the dismissal. The appellate court noted that in ordinary parlance, courts are not described as “departments” or “agencies” of the government. Moreover, a common sense understanding of the word “agency” would require that there be a principal on behalf of whom an agent acts. The youth court did not act on behalf of another, noted the appellate court. The court rejected the DOJ’s remaining statutory construction arguments, concluding that neither the purpose nor the context of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act overrode the textual limitations upon the law’s scope.
Impact on Investigations
“The states have the primary responsibility for oversight of their juvenile court systems, including the provision of access to counsel at every stage of the proceedings,” states Franchesca L. Hamilton-Acker, Lafayette, LA, member of the Section’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. The court’s decision in this case does not lessen that responsibility.
Still, there is a concern that the decision could chill future investigations of juvenile courts, making it harder to effect system-wide change in jurisdictions that need it. “If a young person’s detention hearing is delayed, and due process is not followed, it is likely that the child will be detained, released, and the case closed before the court of appeals addresses the issue,” notes Pattison. “We are in sore need of improving how lawyers get appointed, the amount of time they have to get ready, and the notice they receive. Trying to solve those problems on a case-by-case basis can be really frustrating for lawyers, as well as the client and families,” stresses Pattison.
Matthew S. Mulqueen is an associate editor for Litigation News.
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