North v. Russell

Decision Date28 June 1976
Docket NumberNo. 74-1409,74-1409
Citation96 S.Ct. 2709,49 L.Ed.2d 534,427 U.S. 328
PartiesLonnie NORTH, Appellant, v. C. B. RUSSELL et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Under Kentucky's two-tier court system, police courts (the first tier) have jurisdiction of misdemeanor cases, but an accused has an appeal of right from a police judge's decision to the circuit court (the second tier), where there is a trial De novo. The State Constitution requires cities in Kentucky to be classified according to population size. By statute judges of police courts in cities of less than a certain population need not be lawyers, but in larger cities they must be, and all circuit court judges are lawyers. In this challenge to the constitutionality of the statutory scheme Held :

1. An accused, who is charged with a misdemeanor for which he is subject to possible imprisonment, is not denied due process when tried before a nonlawyer police court judge in one of the smaller cities, when a later trial De novo is available in the circuit court. Ward v. Village of Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57, 93 S.Ct. 80, 34 L.Ed.2d 267; Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510, 47 S.Ct. 437, 71 L.Ed. 749, distinguished. Pp. 333-339.

2. Nor does the State deny such an accused equal protection of the laws by providing law-trained judges for some police courts and lay judges for others, depending upon the State Constitution's classification of cities according to population, since as long as all people within each classified area are treated equally, the different classifications within the court system are justified. Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22, 25 L.Ed. 989. Pp. 338-339.

540 S.W.2d 4, affirmed.

Charles E. Goss, for appellant.

Robert L. Chenoweth, Lawrenceburg, Ky., for appellees.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether an accused, subject to possible imprisonment, is denied due process when tried before a nonlawyer police court judge with a later trial De novo available under a State's two-tier court system; and whether a State denies equal protection by providing law-trained judges for some police courts and lay judges for others, depending upon the State Constitution's classification of cities according to population.


Appellant Lonnie North was arrested in Lynch, Ky., on July 10, 1974, and charged with driving while intoxicated in violation of Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 189.520(2) (1971). If a first offense, a penalty of a fine of from $100 to $500 is provided; if a subsequent offense, the same fine, and imprisonment for not more than six months.1 Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 189.990(10)(a) (1971).

Appellant's trial was scheduled for July 18, 1974, at 7 p. m., before the Lynch City Police Court. Appellee C. B. Russell, who is not a lawyer, was the presiding judge. Appellant's request for a jury was denied although under Kentucky law he was entitled to a jury trial. Ky.Const. § 11; Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. §§ 25.014, 26.400 (1971). Appellant pleaded not guilty. Appellant was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail, a fine of $150, and revocation of his driver's license.

Section 156 of the Kentucky Constitution requires cities to be classified according to population size. There are six classes of cities: fifth-class cities have a population of between 1,000 and 3,000; sixth-class cities have a population of less than 1,000. Lynch is a fifth-class city. Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 81.010(5) (1971). A police judge in fifth- and sixth-class cities must by statute be a voter and resident of the city for at least one year and be bonded, Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 26.200 (1971); the police judge in such cities need not be a lawyer. Police judges in first-class cities, which have populations of over 100,000, must have the same qualifications as a circuit judge, who must be at least 35 years of age, a citizen of Kentucky, a two-year resident of the district, and a practicing attorney for eight years.2 Ky.Const. § 130; Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 26.140 (1971). Police court judges have terms of four years. In fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-class cities police judges may be either appointed or elected.3 Ky.onst. § 160.

Police courts have jurisdiction, concurrent with circuit courts, of penal and misdemeanor cases punishable by a fine of not more than $500 and/or imprisonment of not more than 12 months. Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 26.010 (1971). Kentucky has a two-tier misdemeanor court system. An appeal of right is provided from the decision of a police judge to the circuit court where all judges are lawyers, and in that court a jury trial De novo may be had. Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 23.032 (1971). Ky.Rule Crim.Proc. 12.06.

Appellant did not appeal to the Kentucky circuit court for a trial De novo to which he was entitled. After being sentenced by appellee judge, appellant challenged the statutory scheme described above by a writ of habeas corpus in the Harlan County Circuit Court, where he was represented by an attorney. Appellant contended that his federal due process and equal protection rights had been abridged because he had been tried and convicted in a court presided over by a judge wiout legal training and thus without legal competence. The State Circuit Court issued the writ, granted bail, and held an evidentiary hearing.

The Circuit Court noted that appellant was not challenging the adequacy of the proceedings before appellee Russell, and hence rested on the appellant's pleadings, which the court found were purposefully limited to the issue whether appellant could be tried before a judge who was not legally trained when persons similarly situated but residing in larger cities would be tried by a judge trained in the law. The Circuit Court denied relief on the basis of the Kentucky Court of Appeals holding in Ditty v. Hampton, 490 S.W.2d 772 (1972), appeal dismissed, 414 U.S. 885, 94 S.Ct. 219, 38 L.Ed.2d 133 (1973). The Kentucky Court of Appeals in turn affirmed the denial of relief on the basis of Ditty v. Hampton, supra, noting that appellant could apply for bail in the event of an appeal from the Lynch Police Court judgment. 516 S.W.2d 103 (1974).

When this case first came here on appeal we vacated the judgment and remanded it "for further consideration in light of the position presently asserted by the Commonwealth." 419 U.S. 1085, 95 S.Ct. 673, 42 L.Ed.2d 677 (1974). The Attorney General of Kentucky in his motion to dismiss or affirm had requested that this Court remand the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals for consideration of violations of state law based on the suggestion that appellee judge had "mistakenly imposed a sentence of imprisonment upon appellant for a first offense of driving while intoxicated, whereas imprisonment is not an authorized punishment for first offenders . . .." The Kentucky Attorney General conceded that the writ of habeas corpus should have been granted and requested an opportunity to correct the error.

On remand, however, the Kentucky Court of Appeals declined to decide the case on the state grounds presented by the Attorney General, noting that the federal constitutional issue "was and is the only issue before us." That court noted that appellant sought only to "test the constitutional status of lay judges in criminal cases." No. 74-723 (Mar.21, 1975).

On the second appeal to this Court we noted probable jurisdiction. 422 U.S. 1040, 95 S.Ct. 2652, 45 L.Ed.2d 692 (1975).


Appellant's first claim is that when confinement is a possible penalty, a law-trained judge is required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whether or not a trial De novo before a lawyer-judge is available. 4 It must be recognized that there is a wide gap between the functions of a judge of a court of general jurisdiction, dealing with complex litigation, and the functions of a local police court judge trying a typical "drunk" driver case or other traffic violations. However, once it appears that confinement is an available penalty, the process commands scrutiny. See Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 92 S.Ct. 2006, 32 L.Ed.2d 530 (1972).

Appellant argues that the right to counsel articulated in Argersinger v. Hamlin, supra, And Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963), is meaningless without a lawyer-judge to understand the arguments of counsel. Appellant also argues that the increased complexity of substantive and procedural criminal law requires that all judges now be lawyers in order to be able to rule correctly on the intricate issues lurking even in some simple misdemeanor cases. In the context of the Kentucky procedures, however, it is unnecessary to reach the question whether a defendant could be convicted and imprisoned after a proceeding in which the only trial afforded is conducted by a lay judge. In all instances, a defendant in Kentucky facing a criminal sentence is afforded an opportunity to be tried De novo In a court presided over by a lawyer-judge since an appeal automatically vacates the conviction in police court. Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 23.032 (1971); Ky.Rule Crim.Proc 12.06. The trial de novo is available after either a trial or a plea of guilty in the police court; a defendant is entitled to bail while awaiting the trail deovo. 516 S.W.2d 103 (Ky.1974).

It is obvious that many defendants charged with a traffic violation or other misdemeanor may be uncounseled when they appear before the police court. They may be unaware of their right to a De novo Trial after a judgment is entered since the decision is likely to be prompt. We assume that police court judges recognize their obligation under Argersinger v. Hamlin, supra, to inform defendants of their right to a lawyer if a sentence of confinement is to be imposed. The appellee judge testified that informing defendants of a right to counsel was "the standard procedure." App. 32. We also assume that police court judges in Kentucky recognize their obligation to inform all convicted defendants, including those who waived cou...

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