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Sex offender issue on hold

The Supreme Court has put off, until after getting some advice from a state court, a significant test case on the constitutionality of requiring a juvenile to register as a sex offender, if the youth’s crime occurred before the federal law was passed in 2006.  That question was before the Court in U.S. v. Juvenile Male (09-940), but the Court indicated Monday that it was not sure that the case remained a live controversy.  After it hears from the Montana Supreme Court on that issue, it will decide whether to take the case for review, the Court indicated.

The youth involved in the case, whose name has been withheld, was about 12 years old in 2000 when, authorities said, he began abusing a ten-year-old boy on the Fort Belknap Indian reservation in Montana.  The abuse of the other boy, identified only by the initials “W.J.H.,” was said to have continued for two or three years.  In 2005, the older youth was charged as a juvenile in federal court under federal law for engaging in forced sex acts.  He admitted the crime, and was sentenced to two years of detention with supervision until he was 21 years old.

He also was required to register as a sex offender under the 2006 law, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.  That law applies, too, to juveniles who have been found to be delinquent for sex crimes.  His lawyers contended that, since his sexual assaults predated the enactment of SORNA, the registration requirement violated the Constitution’s Ex Post Facto clause.  The Ninth Circuit Court accepted that argument, leading the federal government to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In an unsigned (“Per Curiam”) opinion on Monday, the Court said that it was in doubt whether the controversy over the retroactivity issue remained a live one.  The youth’s status as a juvenile under federeal supervision ended in May of this year, the Court noted, so his case may have lost all of its legal significance, unless the youth can show that a decision in his favor invalidating the federal registration requirement would remove any lingering negative legal effect for him.  The youth also is registered as a sex offender under Montana law, the Court said, so the question arises whether that status would be affected if the federal registration requirement were struck down.

Thus, the Court sent a question to the Montana Supreme Court, and asked ii to answer.  The issue is whether the youth’s duty to remain registered as a sex offender under state law depended upon whether he was obliged to be registered under federal law, or whether the duty to register under state law had its own independent force.  The state court’s answer, the Justices said, will help determine whether to go forward with the case. In the meantime, it suspended any further proceedings in the Supreme Court, until the answer is in hand.

Among other orders issued Monday, the Court turned aside the first case to reach it challenging the legality of the federal mandates put on state governments and local school systems by the No Child Left Behind Act, an educational reform measure that was a signature program of the Bush Administration, and continues to have the support of the Obama Administration.  Eight school districts, nine states and one city’s teachers unions, and the National Education Association argued in this first appeal that the 2001 law cannot legally impose requirements on local school districts, unless Congress puts up sufficient funds to cover the full costs of carrying out those mandates, which it has not done.

The dispute reached the Court in Pontiac School District, et al., v. Duncan (Education Secretary), 09-852.  The Court, accepting the suggestion of the Obama Administration, declined to review the case, following its usual practice of providing no reason for doing so.  The Administration had said the case was not a suitable one to test the funding issue, saying the challengers had sued rather than trying first to get changes in their own state programs under the Act, and that they had no support in their challenge by official state education agencies under whose plans they are obliged to satisfy the federal mandates.  Moreover, the government brief said, no other federal court has ruled on the compliance issue.  The Sixth Circuit Court had split 8-8 in refusing en banc review, thus leaving intact a federal District judge’s ruling rejecting the challenge.

The Justices on Monday also refused to hear an issue that they had agreed once before to decide, only to have the issue elude review.  The question in the new case, Jones v. Williams (09-948), was whether it violates a criminal suspect’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel if a defense lawyer has refused to accept a pre-trial plea bargain, and the suspect then goes to trial and gets convicted, receiving a longer sentence than offered by prosecutors in the bargain.  California state officials, in seeking to appeal the issue to the Supreme Court, argued that, if the ensuing trial was a fair one, there is no constitutional defect in the defense lawyer’s refusal to go along with an offered bargain, so there is no need for a remedy.  The Tenth Circuit Court ruled that there was a violation of the right to counsel, to be remedied either by carrying out the plea deal, or by staging a new trial.

The Supreme Court had decided to resolve the same constitutional issue three years ago, in the case of Arave v. Hoffman, but dismissed the issue after the individual involved had dropped his claim.