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Dramatic Reversal: Ohio Supreme Court Reverses its Landmark Decision on Mandatory Transfer of Youth to Adult Courts

Posted in 2017, Research & Policy Wednesday, 31 May 2017

By Jeree Thomas, Policy Director

On May 25, 2017, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed its landmark decision in State v. Aalim, which held that Ohio’s mandatory transfer statute, which required the transfer of 16 and 17-year olds to adult court for certain offenses after a finding of probable cause, was unconstitutional. 

 In its most recent decision, State v. Aalim II, the Court reversed itself.  This time, the Court agreed with the State that under Article IV, Section 4(B) of the Ohio Constitution, the legislature has “exclusive authority to define the jurisdiction of the courts of common pleas.”  Therefore, by finding the mandatory transfer statute unconstitutional in its original opinion, the Court impermissibly delegated legislative authority to juvenile court judges by giving them discretion over whether to transfer youth from the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.  The Court also held that mandatory transfer does not violate a juvenile’s substantive due process right because an amenability hearing is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s History and tradition.”  To support this holding, the Court highlights that amenability hearings were not created in Ohio until 1969, and according to the Court, the U.S. Supreme Court has restricted the expansion of substantive due process rights especially in the criminal justice context.   The Court also argues that the law meets the due process standard set in Kent v. US (1966) because Aalim had a hearing in front of a judge to determine his age, whether probable cause existed that he committed the offense, and he was represented at the time of the hearing.

 Finally, the Court also disagreed with Aalim’s equal protection argument finding that juveniles are not a suspect (or protected) class, nor is an amenability hearing a fundamental right, and therefore a lower level of scrutiny is required in determining whether or not a law violates the Equal Protection Clause.  Therefore, the mandatory transfer scheme only has to be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.   In the case of Aalim, the Court found that mandatory transfer is rationally related to the government purpose of “increased punishment for serious juvenile offenders.” 

The Ohio Supreme Court’s dramatic reversal is contributed in large part to the Court’s political makeup according to reporting by Jim Provance of the Toledo Blade.  In Ohio, Supreme Court Justices run for election, and in 2016, two of the justices that decided State v. Aalim I, Justices Judith Lanzinger and Paul Pfeifer, were no longer eligible to serve as justices because of their age.   The new justices, Justices Pat DeWine and Pat Fisher, voted in favor of the reversal.  In his dissent, Justice William O’Neill, sharply criticized the decision stating, “[t]oday’s decision is a mistake, and it should be treated that way…Nothing has changed since that date [when Aalim I was decided] other than the makeup of this court.”

The Ohio Supreme Court’s dramatic reversal strikes a blow to children, families, and advocates in Ohio and elsewhere relying on the strong and decisive opinion in Aalim I to challenge mandatory transfer provisions.  What Aalim II highlights is the fragility of juvenile justice reform momentum in our current political climate.   It is increasingly important that communities push back against policies, procedures, and practices that are not based in the evidence of what works to rehabilitate youth, reduce recidivism, and keep communities safe.