In re James Allen Hall, No. 07-0322 (DocketDB)

Most attorneys never encounter it, but the Texas Supreme Court does have jurisdiction over a special slice of criminal law — juvenile justice cases. (The others, of course, go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)

Here, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a former juvenile held over as an adult (to complete a 40-year sentence for capital murder) had the right to an appointed lawyer for a habeas corpus proceeding.

Representing himself, Hall requested that the courts grant him an appointed counsel for that purpose. He relied on a provision of the Juvenile Justice Code providing that “(a) A child may be represented by an attorney at every stage of proceedings under this title, including: … (7) habeas corpus proceedings challenging the legality of detention resulting from action under this title.” Tex. Fam. Code § 51.10(a)(7); see also Tex. Fam. Code § 51.10(f) (requiring appointment of counsel when the family cannot afford one).

The court of appeals denied relief, holding that — because Hall was now an adult — he no longer qualified as a “child” for purposes of the statute.

Hall filed a petition for review. The case was then referred to, and accepted by, the State Bar’s pro bono assistance program, through which Hall obtained appellate counsel to argue in the Texas Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rejected the reasoning of the court of appeals but agreed with its holding in this case. Justice Medina wrote the opinion for the Court.

The Court noted that whether Hall was a “child” under the statute was set at the time of the offense. So, he is, for purposes of this statute, still a “child.”

It next examined whether the proceeding in question — a post-conviction habeas corpus challenge to the original conviction — was covered by the statute. The Court began its analysis with Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1981): (( Other dictionaries, as might be expected from lexicographers, disagree. Hall’s counsel writes: “Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘detention’ in considerably broader terms than those preferred by the State. ‘The act or fact of holding a person in custody; confinement or compulsory delay.'”

The Court’s reasoning here actually goes beyond the dictionary definition to look a what better fits the context of the statute. It’s unfortunate that it began with a dictionary definition from a less than compelling source. ))

“Detention” is commonly defined as either (1) “the act or fact of detaining or holding back; esp: a holding in custody” or (2) “the state of being detained; esp: a period of temporary custody prior to disposition by a court.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary 307 (1981). The latter definition is closer to the intended meaning here. In context and consistent with the Juvenile Justice Code’s scheme, detention refers to the period of temporary custody preceding the adjudication of the charges against the child.

To establish that context, the Court reviewed some other provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, noting that it discusses a detention hearing at which the child can be detained prior to conviction. Thus, the Court concluded that the statute was meant to permit challenges to those sorts of detention orders, not to the conviction itself.

The Court denied mandamus relief.