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United States v. Lauderdale County, Mississippi

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 1, 2019

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.

          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 judges[4] 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 ...


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