COLUMBIA - South Carolina's Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that juveniles do not have a right to a jury trial.
The high court upheld South Carolina's current code, which calls for children's cases to be held in a separate court without a jury. Family court is designed that way in an effort to have kids undergo a less punitive system than adult court, experts said.
"The current system stays in place," said Charlie Condon, a Lowcountry criminal defense attorney and former state attorney general. "The fact finder and the one who decides the legal issues remain the same, which is the family court judge. And you will not have a jury like you do in general sessions."
The case that went before the Supreme Court was that of a 16-year-old Richland County boy who was arrested for drugs, after dropping pot plastic baggies while being chased by a cop. He denied that the drugs were his, but the family court judge ordered he spend six weekends in detention, complete an alternative educational program and stay on probation until he turned 18 or got a general equivalency diploma.
His legal team filed an appeal, asking for a jury trial, citing the state's constitution, which calls for "any person charged with an offense shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury."
But the Supreme Court ruled that the judicial system has vastly changed since the constitution's adoption in 1868. The state has since created a children's code of law.
"These important distinctions between the family court juvenile adjudication process and the traditional criminal justice process demonstrate that the juvenile adjudication process in family court is not of a like nature or similar to the manner in which juveniles were criminally charged at the time the Constitution was enacted," the ruling read. "As a result, the South Carolina Constitution does not entitle juveniles to a jury trial in family court adjudication proceedings."
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she would have been surprised if there were any other result, when it comes to the court's ruling, because the juvenile system is vastly different than the adult system.
"Family court 'prosecutions' are designed by statute for rehabilitation of the child facing 'charges'," said Wilson in an email. "The welfare of the child is paramount so the consequences are limited and the effects are not intended to be 'permanent.' It makes sense that juries are not required in this setting."
Condon added if the court had ruled otherwise, it would have brought the family court system to a screeching halt.
"It would be really expensive," Condon said. "The family court system isn't set up for jurors to come in there right now. It would have completely changed the ability of our current system."
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.