United States v. Lauderdale County, Mississippi, 020119 FED5, 17-60805

Docket Nº:17-60805
Opinion Judge:JENNIFER WALKER ELROD, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. LAUDERDALE COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI; JUDGE VELDORE YOUNG-GRAHAM, In her official capacity; and JUDGE LISA HOWELL, In her official capacity, Defendants - Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before REAVLEY, ELROD, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 01, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant,

v.

LAUDERDALE COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI; JUDGE VELDORE YOUNG-GRAHAM, In her official capacity; and JUDGE LISA HOWELL, In her official capacity, Defendants - Appellees.

No. 17-60805

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 1, 2019

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

Before REAVLEY, ELROD, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.

JENNIFER WALKER ELROD, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

This case presents a question of statutory interpretation. The question is whether the phrase "officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice," as it is used in 34 U.S.C. § 12601(a), includes the judges of a county youth court. Holding that it does not, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

I.

As this is a question of statutory interpretation, we begin with the text of the statute. In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.[1] Relevant to this case are the provisions found in Title XXI, § 210401, 108 Stat. 2071, now codified at 34 U.S.C. § 12601. That section, enacted under a title heading of "State and Local Law Enforcement," and a subtitle heading of "Police Pattern or Practice," reads as follows:

(a) Unlawful conduct

It shall be unlawful for any governmental authority, or any agent thereof, or any person acting on behalf of a governmental authority, 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.

(b) Civil action by Attorney General

Whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that a violation of paragraph (1)2 has occurred, the Attorney General, for or in the name of the United States, may in a civil action obtain appropriate equitable and declaratory relief to eliminate the pattern or practice.

34 U.S.C. § 12601.

II.

The United States Department of Justice initiated this litigation in October 2012. In its complaint, the United States alleged, inter alia, 3 that Lauderdale County and its two Youth Court judges4 operated a "school-to-prison pipeline" and, through their administration of the juvenile justice process, were engaged in patterns or practices that denied juveniles their constitutional rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

Before we further address the litigation underlying this appeal, it will be useful to offer some background on the Lauderdale County Youth Court, its judges, and its procedures. In Mississippi, county youth courts are divisions of the county courts, and the judges of the county courts are also the judges of the youth courts. Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-107. County judges are elected for terms of four years, and the Governor has authority to fill vacancies by appointment. Id. §§ 9-9-5, 9-7-1, 9-1-103. Lauderdale County is authorized two county judges. Id. § 9-9-18.3. When a juvenile is charged with offenses under youth court jurisdiction, he or she is brought before an intake officer of the court who establishes jurisdiction and recommends whether informal resolution or custody is warranted. Id. § 43-21-357. If the juvenile is placed into custody, he or she must be brought before a youth court judge within 48 hours-excluding weekends and holidays-for a probable cause determination. Id. § 43-21-301. If needed, the juvenile is appointed a guardian ad litem and/or defense counsel. Id. §§ 43-21-121, 43-21-201. If the juvenile is held in custody, an adjudicatory hearing must be held within 21 days, with a few exceptions. Id. § 43-21-551. If the juvenile is adjudicated to be delinquent or in need of supervision, a disposition hearing must then be scheduled within 14 days. Id. § 43-21-601. If the disposition requires detention, the detention cannot exceed 90 days. Id. § 43-21-605(1)(1). To perform the work of the youth courts, the youth court judges may appoint intake officers, guardians ad litem, defense counsel, and prosecutors. Id. §§ 43-21-119 (intake officers); 43-21-117 (prosecutors); 43-21-121 (guardians ad litem); 43-21-201 (defense counsel). The county board of supervisors controls the funding and budget for county youth courts. Id. § 43-21-123.

The government brought this action against Lauderdale County and its Youth Court judges under 34 U.S.C. § 12601 (formerly codified at 42 U.S.C. 14141). By way of alleged constitutional violations, the government alleges that the Lauderdale County judges: delay detention hearings for longer than 48 hours; do not base their detention determinations on whether probable cause exists; do not consistently provide defense counsel; do not clearly articulate the standards for school suspensions; do not conduct hearings that determine whether violations occurred but instead "exist solely to determine punishment[;]" and do not allow juveniles sufficient access to their attorneys.5

By way of relief, the complaint filed by the United States seeks: (1) a declaration that constitutional violations are occurring; (2) an injunction against said unconstitutional practices; (3) an order requiring the defendants "to promulgate and effectuate" policies more protective of constitutional rights; (4) an order directing the creation of "alternatives to detention and juvenile justice processes for children," as well as the "review and expungement of youth records[;]" (5) for the court to retain jurisdiction until the defendants fully comply; and (6) "any such additional relief as the interests of justice require." Though not the basis of our decision, we share the concerns expressed by the district court that the government appears to be seeking remedies that would not only exceed the authority of the Youth Court judges, but also dictate how the Youth Court judges shall perform their adjudicatory functions when enforcing state law.6

Accord ODonnell v. Harris Cty, 892 F.3d 147, 155 (5th Cir. 2018) (holding that the judge of a county court may be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when acting as a policymaker for the county, but not when "acting in his or her judicial capacity to enforce state law" (quoting Johnson v. Moore, 958 F.2d 92, 94 (5th Cir. 1992))).

The litigation underlying this appeal was tied up in motions, discovery, and settlement discussions for years. The judges first moved to dismiss this litigation on Younger abstention grounds, but that argument was rejected by the district court. The judges next moved to dismiss on the grounds of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and judicial immunity. In September 2017, the district court rejected the Rooker-Feldman argument, but granted the motion to dismiss on the bases that the plain statutory language of 34 U.S.C. § 12601 did not encompass youth court judges, and also that the judges were entitled to judicial immunity with respect to the claims raised. The government timely appeals the statutory interpretation and judicial immunity determinations. As far as we are aware, this is the first-and thus far the only-Section 12601 claim brought against the judges of a youth court (or any court) to be resolved in the federal courts through...

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