On Aug. 20, 2012, an 11-year-old boy, shackled, made his first appearance before a judge. His lawyers today urged the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to declare unconstitutional the shackling of juveniles without a judge first deciding whether the restraints are necessary.
The child in this case, known as M.H., was charged with taking part in a robbery using a BB gun. During his initial appearance, his hands, feet and waist were shackled. Alec Karakatsanis of the Public Defender Service told the court today that this was standard practice for juveniles in D.C. Superior Court.
Restraining a child with metal chains was "humiliating" and painful—emotionally and physically—Karakatsanis told the court. The practice, he said, created a host of constitutional problems, from limiting a child's ability to communicate with his lawyer to weakening the integrity of the juvenile justice system and the court.
In M.H.'s case, Karakatsanis said the judge deferred to a U.S. Marshals Service policy on shackling followed by the city's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. He argued judges should make individualized determinations before allowing shackling for juveniles, as opposed to deferring to the U.S. Marshals Service policy used by DYRS.
John Woykovsky of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia focused his case on the procedural reasons why the court shouldn't make any ruling on the merits of the claims. M.H.'s guilty plea meant he couldn't bring the appeal in the first place, Woykovsky said. The government also argued the judge's decision to allow shackling without findings specific to M.H. wasn't the type of order that could be challenged.
Members of the three-judge panel indicated their reluctance to use the case as the vehicle for changing shackling practices at Superior Court. Judge John Fisher noted that other states changed shackling practices for children through legislative or other rule-changing processes, not litigation.
If the Public Defender Service wanted to take the litigation route, Fisher added, a class action lawsuit might allow a more comprehensive record for the appeals court to review.
Karakatsanis said judges were responsible for addressing constitutional violations in courtrooms. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case finding the shackling of an adult prisoner during sentencing by jury was unconstitutional. Fisher asked how that case applied, since it involved proceedings before a jury, as opposed to an initial appearance before a judge. Karakatsanis said the broader constitutional issues the Supreme Court found problematic when it came to shackling were still relevant.
Woykovsky faced questions from Senior Judge Inez Smith Reid about whether the trial judge exercised her discretion by deferring to the U.S. Marshals Service policy used by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Woykovsky said the decision to defer to the policy was an exercise of discretion.
Fisher asked why the city didn't seem to spend much time in its court papers defending the shackling, as opposed to fighting the Public Defender Service's ability to bring the challenge. Woykovsky said the government proceeded under the assumption that procedural issues would knock out the case before the court reached the underlying issues.
He said judges should be able to weigh whether certain juveniles needed to be shackled—a young child accused of a minor crime, for instance—but that the Public Defender Service was asking the court to go too far in saying the default practice should be no shackling absent specific findings.
Chief Judge Eric Washington also heard the case.
Oral arguments took place this morning at Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. The appeals court periodically hears cases at law schools as part of a public outreach effort.