Constitution Day


Juvenile court judge examines juvenile law and the Constitution

Judge Glenn Derryberry of Allen County juvenile court presented Bluffton’s annual Constitution Day Forum titled “Juveniles and the Law: A Puzzle.” In front of a packed audience on Sept. 20 in Yoder Recital Hall, Derryberry explained that he looks at constitutional law in the area of juvenile justice to be a large jigsaw puzzle.

“The puzzle is not finished and the puzzle continues to change,” said Derryberry. “Local courts every day are confronted with Constitutional details of great importance.”

The pieces of the puzzle for juvenile court started to be put into place in 1899 when the first juvenile court was established in the United States. It was a time known as the Progressive era, when a number of reforms were being adopted including child labor laws, minimum wage and compulsory school attendance. The juvenile justice reform movement spread to Ohio by 1904 when a juvenile court was established in Cuyahoga County. Allen County’s juvenile court came two years later in 1906. Prior to that there was no separate juvenile court system and crimes committed by minors were largely handled in the adult court system.

The new juvenile courts established different and special procedures for handling cases. The philosophy of juvenile justices held that the court was acting to protect the child, to better the child rather than to punish the child. “The idea was that the state was acting as the superior guardian of the child, not in order to punish, but to protect and reform,” said Derryberry.

The new reforms also required that minors would be housed separately from adult prisoners. “Prior to 1899, and in most states for several years thereafter, a child, no matter what age, could be thrown in jail or even placed in prison with adults,” said Derryberry.

Back then and still today, juvenile court differ in many other ways from adult court. For example, juvenile cases are handled more informally than adult cases and juveniles have fewer rights than adults (for example, juveniles do not have the right to a trial of their peers.)

However, the United States Supreme Court has tightened up the system dramatically. Between 1899 and 1966, the Supreme Court decided no juvenile law cases. But in 1966, the Supreme Court decided the case of Kent v. United States. In short, Kent was a 16-year-old whose burglary case was transferred to criminal court for prosecution as an adult after a full investigation. “Notice that the statute said full investigation and didn’t require any kind of trial or hearing at which evidence was presented,” said Derryberry. “The Supreme Court said in its decision that juvenile courts, as then constituted didn’t even really appear to be courts at all.”

From the Kent decision, Derryberry said that the walls began to fall. The following year, the Supreme Court decided “probably the single most important case ever decided by the United States Supreme Court relating to the rights of juveniles,” said Derryberry. Known as the Gault case, the Supreme Court decided that “neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone.”

The Supreme Court in subsequent years has also determined that juveniles can’t be found delinquent unless proven by proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that juveniles can’t be tried twice for the same crime—also known as double jeopardy. Just in 2012, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a juvenile is considered to be cruel and unusual punishment. These examples, explained Derryberry, show that the puzzle is always changing and “continues to be pieced together.”

During Derryberry’s presentation, he also spoke on other Constitutional provisions as they relate to juveniles—especially free speech and searches.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court held that a school could not restrict the content of the political speech permitted in the school. The Tinker kids had shown up at school wearing black armbands as their way of protesting the Vietnam War and the principal sent them home. In 1969, the Supreme Court decided that neither the Tinker kids, nor their armbands were disruptive and did not interfere with school discipline and the rights of others. However, students are not allotted all of the rights of adults. “The Court has since held that the student’s Constitutional free-speech rights did not extend to permit the use of profanity or offensive language in a speech when a student was running for school office and did not give students the right to unrestricted publication of their articles in the school newspaper,” said Derryberry.

Search and seizures, including drug searches and drug testing, in schools also leave juveniles with fewer protections than they might enjoy outside the school setting, and like the free speech cases it isn’t because they are juveniles, instead because they are in school.

Derryberry ended Forum with a reminder to the students that the puzzle of juvenile law is not finished. “The establishment of each of these Constitutional principles, each piece of the puzzle, began with a citizen who raised the issues in the local courts, by lawyers who advocated those positions on behalf of their clients and by local trial court judges who wrestle daily with the phrases written down 227 years ago, and what they mean to us in the 21st century. It is not just the Supreme Court that is trying to understand and define these concepts and phrases. It’s all of us.”


Judge Glenn Derryberry
Local courts every day are confronted with Constitutional details of great importance.”