NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A Louisiana law that automatically transfers 15-year-old suspects to adult court if they are indicted by a grand jury for certain violent crimes was upheld Wednesday by the state's Supreme Court.
The 4-3 ruling came in the case of a suspect who had just turned 15 when he was accused of raping a child. A lower court ruled that transferring him from juvenile to a regular criminal court following his indictment - without a hearing on whether he should be transferred - was an unconstitutional violation of due process.
The lower court cited the U.S. Supreme Court's holding that juveniles should be treated differently than adults in sentencing, according to the ruling. The lower court said a transfer to regular criminal court for adults imposes "a significant deprivation of liberty" and warrants protection under the Constitution's due process clause; and, that the transfer shouldn't take place until a court has determined that the suspect wouldn't benefit from juvenile court programs.
The high court disagreed.
"The automatic transfer provision is the product of the balancing of policy considerations involving not only those relating to the special treatment of juveniles but also public safety," the unsigned ruling said. "It is the prerogative of the legislature to engage in this balancing calculus."
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote a dissenting opinion. Justice Jefferson Hughes also dissented, along with appeals court Judge Susan Chehardy, who is temporarily filling a vacancy on the high court. That left a majority of justices Scott Crichton, James Genovese and John Weimer and retired Judge James Boddie Jr., also filling in for another justice.
"The need to recognize the unique characteristics of youthful offenders is inconsistent with a statute that mandates a transfer of jurisdiction to adult court - based solely on age and the offense charged - without giving the juvenile a right to a hearing," Johnson wrote.
The law in question is a section of the Louisiana Children's Code governing juveniles who are 15 or older when they face charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, aggravated or first-degree rape, or aggravated kidnapping.