Justices answer juvenile ineffective assistance of counsel question

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Indiana Supreme Court justices have affirmed the placement of a teenage boy in the Indiana Department of Correction, finding he was not provided ineffective assistance of counsel.

Justices on Tuesday addressed unsettled law concerning the standard to evaluate claims made by children alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically addressing the case of A.M. v. State of Indiana, 19S-JV-603, the high court considered counsel’s overall performance and determined whether that performance ensured the child received a fundamentally fair hearing resulting in a disposition serving his best interests.

In that case, A.M. was placed in the DOC in 2017 at the age of 15 as the culmination of a “long history with the juvenile justice system,” the Supreme Court wrote. By the age of 10, A.M. had committed three delinquent acts amounting to Class D felony battery with bodily injury if committed by an adult. He was later expelled from an alternative schooling program for “fail[ing] to comply” and was placed on supervised probation after beating up another teen who was subsequently sent to the hospital.

A.M. continued to fail to abide by his probation terms by threatening his family, skipping school, missing mental health evaluations and being a suspect in the burglary of a fellow classmate’s home, among other things. Out of concern for A.M. and the community’s safety, the teen was recommended for placement in the DOC. He was committed to the DOC for an indeterminate period, which A.M. appealed based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Indiana Court of Appeals unanimously denied his claim, with Judge Terry Crone requesting that the high court address whether “the two-pronged Strickland test or the due process test is the proper test to be used in analyzing the effectiveness of juvenile’s counsel during the various phases of delinquency proceedings.”

The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the COA’s opinion after granting transfer to the case, concluding that a due process standard governs A.M.’s claim that he received ineffective assistance.

First, it concluded that A.M.’s right to effective counsel comes from the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee and must therefore be evaluated under a due process, and not a standard under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. (1984).

“Though parallels exist between Indiana’s criminal and juvenile systems, there remain significant differences separating the two, not least of which are the constitutional origins for criminal and juvenile rights,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the majority. “Since a juvenile’s constitutional rights arise from the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee, they must be applied and assessed through a due process lens.”

The majority noted, however, that it does not see the Baum v. State, 533 N.E.2d 1200, 1201 (Ind. 1989) standard as a suitable test for A.M. or other similarly situated juveniles’ ineffective assistance of counsel claims. It instead drew on Baker v. Marion Cty. Office of Family and Children, 810 N.E.2d 1035, 1039–41 (Ind. 2004) to establish an ineffective assistance of counsel standard for such cases.

“In assessing fundamental fairness, a court should not focus on what the child’s lawyer might or might not have done to better represent the child,” Goff wrote. “Rather, the court should consider ‘whether the lawyer’s overall performance was so defective that the … court cannot say with confidence that the’ juvenile court imposed a disposition modification consistent with the best interests of the child.”

Considering A.M.’s counsel’s overall performance, the justices could not find that he performed so defectively that they lost confidence in the juvenile court’s disposition modification. The majority therefore concluded that A.M.’s counsel helped ensure he received a fundamentally fair hearing where the court reached an accurate disposition that furthered his best interests.

Writing in a separate concurring judgement, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter objected to the majority’s “Baum-plus” standard, noting he finds no meaningful difference between that and the Strickland standard. Rather, the justice noted he would apply the Baum standard and affirm the trial court.

“Prejudice under Strickland is straightforward — the result of the proceeding likely would have been different had counsel performed capably. But prejudice under the Court’s ‘Baum-plus’ standard is unclear and prompts more questions than answers …”


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