Juvenile offenders in Kansas have a constitutional right to a jury trial, the state's highest court declared Friday in a decision that could force prosecutors to retry hundreds of open cases.
The court reversed a decades-old ruling that had said children accused of crimes didn't have a right to a jury trial because the juvenile justice system was significantly different from the adult system. But a 6-1 majority concluded changes since then have made the two systems similar.
The lone dissenter was Chief Justice Kay McFarland, a former juvenile court judge. She said the court's ruling puts Kansas out of step with other states, citing decisions from Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Maine and Washington.
The court's majority acknowledged that it could not find "total support" for its conclusions from rulings in other states.
But Justice Eric Rosen wrote: "We are undaunted in our belief that juveniles are entitled to the right to a jury trial guaranteed to all citizens under the Sixth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution."
The decision affects all pending juvenile cases and will apply to all those filed in the future, court spokesman Ron Keefover said. Because juvenile cases typically are handled by a judge without a jury, the ruling means hundreds of cases that are still open - including those under appeal or still to be sentenced - might have to be retried.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants a right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury. The 14th Amendment prevents states from abridging the rights guaranteed by the federal constitution.
The high court ruled in a case involving a 16-year-old defendant from Finney County, identified only as L.M. He was sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile corrections center for aggravated sexual battery and possessing alcohol. The justices returned his case to district court.
L.M.'s attorney argued that he was entitled to a jury trial even though he was being prosecuted as a juvenile offender, not an adult. District Judge Philip Vieux denied the request.
The state Supreme Court had ruled in 1984 that juvenile offenders weren't entitled to a jury trial, in keeping with an earlier decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Kansas court said the state's juvenile system focused on rehabilitation and showed a protective, parental attitude toward young offenders.
But in Friday's ruling, the court's majority concluded that legislators had repeatedly revised the juvenile justice system so that it now focuses, like the adult system, on protecting the public and punishing criminals.
"These purposes are more aligned with legislative intent for adult sentencing statutes," Rosen wrote, adding that changes have "eroded" the differences between the two systems.
The Kansas court struck down state laws that say a juvenile is entitled only to a trial before a judge and give judges full discretion to deny jury trials.
Justice Marla Luckert wrote a concurring opinion saying that while she agreed that L.M. was entitled to a jury trial, she would require such trials only for defendants who are 14 or older and accused of a felony.
In her dissent, McFarland said the majority had overstated the extent of the changes over the past 25 years. She added that if the "formalities" of the adult system are imposed on the juvenile system, the state has little need for it.
"The experiment has not failed," she wrote. "The majority has overlooked the most significant features of the juvenile system that distinguish it from the adult system."