Where the Judiciary Prosecutes in Front of Itself: Missouri's Unconstitutional Juvenile Court Structure
54 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2013 Last revised: 13 Mar 2014
Date Written: April 5, 2013
This article is the first scholarly examination of Missouri’s unusual juvenile court structure: Missouri law charges a “juvenile officer” with exclusive authority to determine which child welfare or delinquency cases to file and what to charge in each case. The juvenile officer is hired and supervised by juvenile court judges, and the juvenile officer litigates cases in front of those same judges. This structure differs from the typical procedures in juvenile courts around the United States, which have generally adapted their juvenile courts to reflect the norm of executive branch agencies or attorneys (not court staff) filing cases to intervene on the constitutional rights of children and families. Missouri’s structure is particularly unusual in child welfare cases, in which an executive branch agency has responsibility for operating a comprehensive child welfare system and, in the vast majority of other states, has legal authority to file child abuse and neglect petitions.
This article argues that the current structure violates the Missouri Constitution’s separation of powers clauses by placing prosecutorial discretion within the judicial branch. This violation concentrates power in one branch of government, and individual judges are empowered to set child welfare and juvenile justice policy via their supervisory authority over juvenile officers rather than by adjudicating cases. Juvenile officers face pressure to file and litigate cases to please their boss, the judge, and judges face subtle pressure to rule in favor of the judge’s own employees. At the very least, this structure creates an appearance of partiality to juvenile court litigants. And in child welfare cases, the juvenile officer’s role limits the executive branch’s authority to operate a comprehensive and consistent statewide child welfare system, and wastes millions of dollars by duplicating the work of that executive branch agency.
This article concludes that “constitutional domestication” of the juvenile court requires abiding by separation of powers law and suggests policy reforms to achieve that result while respecting the juvenile law’s commitment to rehabilitating rather than punishing children and families.
Keywords: Juvenile law, Juvenile Courts, Family Courts, Child Welfare Law, Separation of Powers
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