Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Apprendi, Blakely, and Juveniles . . . A New Twist?

One of the hottest and most interesting legal issues in the criminal justice system for the past couple years has been the post-Apprendi litigation over what issues in a criminal case must be decided by a jury. For years, many issues in the federal system and many states have been commonly decided by judges. Then, the Supreme Court handed down the Apprendi decision, and things have been changing drastically ever since. According to Apprendi, the Constitution's guarantee of a right to a jury trial means that certain facts in a criminal case must be decided by a jury, not a judge, unless the defendant waives that right. So far, this landmark ruling has led the Supreme Court to invalidate many state's death penalty schemes (where a judge made the sentencing determination) and the federal sentencing guidelines. Courts across the country are still trying to manage the fallout.

Recently, a Dallas court entered the fray in a way I haven't seen before--juvenile law. A teenager is charged with stabbing a student to death at a local middle school. Not surprisingly, the District Attorney petitioned the juvenile court to transfer the case to adult criminal court. That request was granted. His very smart attorney thought Apprendi and its progeny might have something to say about that. He filed a motion to dismiss the adult case on the grounds that the transfer to adult court violated his client's constitutional right to a jury trial. His argument was that the transfer to an adult court exposed the defendant to a higher punishment than the maximum punishment he would have faced in juvenile court, and therefore the defendant had a right to have a jury decide the issue. I'm not thoroughly versed in Texas's statutory procedures for transfer to adult court, but it is definitely doesn't provide for a jury determination. In Dallas, all the criminal court judges, save one, are elected Republicans. They tend to be very conservative. But, after doing his research on the case law, Judge Manny Alvarez ruled that the defendant's transfer to adult court did, in fact, violate the defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial, and granted the defendant's motion. The DA's office is appealing. But, I think the judge got it right. It will be interesting to see how Texas appellate courts, who have been smacked down several times in recent years by the Supreme Court, will handle the issue. Stay tuned.

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