March 10, 2010

Lawsuit Against Marin Superior Court and Marin County

A lawsuit filed on March 10, 2010, in the California First District Court of Appeal charges Marin County and Marin Superior Court officials with violating state law and the Constitutional rights of youth detained in Marin County Juvenile Hall by preventing the children from being physically present for delinquency court hearings.

Citing a lack of money for security as an issue, officials from Marin Superior Court recently decided juvenile court hearings would be moved to the Marin Civic Center courthouse, along with all parties to the hearing – except for the minor and his or her lawyer. Prior to this decision, juvenile delinquency hearings for children detained in Marin County Juvenile Hall had been held three times a week in the afternoon at a courtroom at the Juvenile Hall in San Rafael.

Now, under a Superior Court Order, the judge, witnesses, alleged victims, family members, the prosecutor, and probation staff would all be in a courtroom, but the child who is the subject of the hearing and his or her lawyer would “appear” by videoconference from a music room at the Juvenile Hall, four miles away. All records, reports, and evidence considered by the judge would be at the Civic Center courthouse.

The suit, Kleppe v. Superior Court of Marin County and Marin County, alleges that juvenile hearings held by video conference violates state law, as well as children’s federal and state Constitutional rights to due process, confrontation, and effective assistance of counsel. The case is brought by taxpayer plaintiff Johanna Kleppe, an advocate for abused and neglected children. The lawsuit names the Superior Court of Marin County, as well as Marin County as defendants.

“As a Marin taxpayer, a mother, and someone who believes in justice for vulnerable children, I am deeply disturbed that Marin County and the Marin Superior Court have no respect for the basic due process rights of children accused of a crime,” said Ms. Kleppe, who is represented by the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group based in San Francisco.

“The rights of a person to be present at criminal hearings and have effective assistance of counsel are the cornerstone of our Constitutional rights in our judicial system and are also afforded to our nation’s children,” said Corene Kendrick, a Youth Law Center staff attorney.

“More than 40 years ago the Supreme Court upheld a child’s right to an attorney, and said ‘The condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court,’” Ms. Kendrick continued. “Having juveniles appear on a TV screen at their own hearings while everyone else is in the courtroom is a return to the juvenile kangaroo courts the Supreme Court struck down four decades ago. Children’s most basic and fundamental rights cannot be sacrificed to an excuse of budgetary belt-tightening, especially when it’s unclear if any money will be saved by videoconferenced hearings.”

Youth Law Center staff attorney Sue Burrell, a former public defender, explained, “Holding a hearing by videoconference hobbles attorneys and prevents them from their legal duty to effectively represent their clients – in this case, children. Having to make arguments and objections by videocamera, not being able to speak privately with the other people in the courtroom, and not having easy access to court documents, places defense attorneys at a serious disadvantage in representing their young clients.”

Ms. Burrell continued and asked, “What message does the Court’s action send to kids? How can Marin County children believe our system of justice is fair if they can’t even go to their own hearings?”

In addition to the violations of the U.S. and California Constitutions, the case alleges violation of Section 679 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which gives juveniles the right to be present at their delinquency hearings.

YLC Staff Attorneys Corene Kendrick, Sue Burrell, Maria Ramiu, and Skadden Fellow Damon King are working on this case.

Download petition.