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State v. Harris

August 21, 2003

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
DARRYL ANDRE HARRIS, APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

A legislative grant of authority to the chief judge of a judicial district to assign any district court matter, including a felony jury trial, to a judicial officer violates Article VI, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution.

Plain error analysis is inappropriate in a case involving a fundamental question of judicial authority.

Appellant, whose first-degree murder trial was assigned to a judicial officer and who has challenged the jurisdiction of the judicial officer on direct appeal, is entitled to a new trial before a district court judge.

Reversed and remanded.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice.

Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Gilbert, J.

Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Anderson, Russell A., and Hanson, JJ.

OPINION

A St. Louis County jury convicted appellant Darryl Andre Harris of first-degree felony murder and attempted first-degree murder. A judicial officer presided, without objection, over most of the pretrial proceedings, as well as all aspects of the trial, including sentencing. On appeal, Harris argues that his convictions must be reversed and a new trial ordered because the judicial officer did not have jurisdiction to hear and try cases of first-degree murder. We reverse the convictions, holding that the assignment of a felony-level trial to a judicial officer pursuant to Minn. Stat. §á487.08, subd. 5 (2002), is unconstitutional. Harris is entitled to a new trial.

On February 22, 2000, Harris, John Horton, and Lucas Johnson went to the apartment of David Voegeli and Licolle Behan for a drug transaction. At the apartment were Voegeli, Behan, David Greenwood, and Efftimia Mylonas. According to witnesses, Harris entered the apartment, pulled out a gun, and declared that it was a robbery. He instructed everyone to drop to the floor and empty their pockets. A struggle over the gun ensued and at least two shots were fired, one paralyzing Voegeli and the other fatally wounding Greenwood. According to Harris, Voegeli, Greenwood, Horton, and Johnson attacked Harris after he walked into the apartment, and Harris shot Voegeli and Greenwood in self-defense.

A grand jury indicted Harris for first-degree felony murder, second-degree intentional murder, second-degree unintentional murder, attempted first-degree felony murder, attempted second-degree intentional murder, and first-degree assault. The case was assigned to a judicial officer rather than a district court judge. Neither party objected to the assignment, and the judicial officer presided over most of the pretrial proceedings, as well as the entire trial. The jury found Harris guilty on all charges. The judicial officer sentenced Harris to life in prison for first-degree murder and to a consecutive term of 180 months for attempted first-degree murder.

On appeal, Harris contends that he is entitled to a new trial before a judge of the district court because the judicial officer lacked jurisdiction to hear and try the case. The state contends that Harris waived any objection to assignment of his case to a judicial officer and, in any event, it was not plain error for the chief judge of the district to assign the judicial officer to hear and try the case. Because the issue of a judicial officer's authority to preside over a felony trial involves purely legal questions, we review the issue de novo. See State v. Wolf, 605 N.W.2d 381, 386 (Minn. 2000). Before considering a judicial officer's proper jurisdiction, we review the background of the judicial officer position within Minnesota's court system.

A. A History of Judicial Officers in Minnesota

In 1971, the legislature abolished most municipal courts in favor of county courts and authorized the appointment of judicial officers by county courts. Act of June 7, 1971, ch. 951, 1971 Minn. Laws 1985, 1985-2011 (codified at Minn. Stat. §§á487.01-487.41 (1971)); see generally Marlene Johnson & John M. Stuart, Minnesota's Judicial Officers: A Short History of an Endangered Species, Bench & Bar of Minn., Dec. 1979, at 23, 27-28 (explaining the work of judicial officers and how the position was created). Minnesota Statutes §á487.08 (1971) provided:

When the judicial business of a county court requires, the county court may appoint one or more part time judicial officers who shall be learned in the law and whose salary shall be fixed by the county court, with the approval of the county board or boards of the counties of the district, and paid by the county. They shall serve at the pleasure of the county court. They shall hear and try such matters as shall be assigned to them by the county court judge.

The judicial officer's work was seen as a continuation of the services provided by the municipal court, and the positions were created both to handle excess work load and provide short-term employment for probate and municipal judges who did not become county court judges. Johnson & Stuart, supra, at 27-28.

Under the 1971 legislation, a county court judge's jurisdiction was limited to probate matters, juvenile matters, family court proceedings, civil cases where the amount in controversy did not exceed $5,000, quiet title and mortgage foreclosures, forcible entry and unlawful detainer actions, ordinance violations, minor criminal offenses, and preliminary hearings for any criminal matter occurring in the county.*fn1 Act of June 7, 1971, ch. 951, §§ 14-19, 1971 Minn. Laws 1985, 1992-94. Because county courts did not have jurisdiction over felony matters, a judicial officer appointed under Minn. Stat. §á487.08 could not preside over a felony matter. See id.

In 1977, the legislature abolished the office of judicial officer. Act of June 2, 1977, ch. 432, § 25, 1977 Minn. Laws 1147, 1161. Before the effective date of abolition, however, the 1978 legislature amended the statute to grandfather in existing personnel, authorizing persons holding the office of judicial officer on January 1, 1978, in certain counties to "continue to serve at the pleasure of the chief judge of the district under the terms and conditions of their appointments." Act of April 5, 1978, ch. 750, § 3, 1978 Minn. Laws 907, 908-09 (codified at Minn. Stat. §á487.08 (1978)). The 1978 act also brought judicial officers under the controlling authority of the chief judge of the judicial district by providing that their salaries would be fixed by the chief judge, that they would be subject to the administrative authority and assignment powers of the chief judge, and that they would hear and try such matters as the chief judge may assign. Minn. Stat. §á487.08, subd. 5 (1978).*fn2 The 1978 act would have gradually phased out judicial officers through retirement, resignation, or termination of the assignment, but did allow for the appointment of temporary judicial officers for terms to expire no later than July 31, 1981. Act of April 5, 1978, ch. 750, § 6, 1978 Minn. Laws 907, 910.

As part of the same act, the legislature mandated that the supreme court, or an agency designated by it, review and study, among other things, whether the offices of judicial officer and referee should be retained or abolished; and if it was recommended that these offices should be retained, whether the powers and duties should be modified. Id., § 8, 1978 Minn. Laws at 910. On October 1, 1980, the Minnesota Supreme Court Judicial Planning Committee submitted its report to the legislature. Minn. Supreme Court Judicial Planning Comm., Report on the Use of Para-Judicial Personnel in the Minnesota Courts (Oct. 1, 1980) (hereinafter "Committee Report").

The committee recommended that "[n]o vacancy in the office of judicial officer should be filled, nor new office created." Id. at 13. The committee noted that following the transfer of assignment powers to the chief judge of the district court in 1978, district court cases were being assigned to judicial officers. Id. at 12-13. The committee stated:

Statutory authority for judicial officers to hear, try, and issue final orders on any matter assigned, together with current assignment practices in the various districts, leads to the conclusion that judicial officers are utilized as functional equivalents of judges.

Id. at 12. In recommending the elimination of the judicial officer position, the committee was concerned that "judicial officers are not judges yet they are engaged in judging." Id. The committee further explained:

The Minnesota Constitution and fundamental organization of the judiciary contemplate courts staffed with duly elected judges, accountable to the public. * * * Simply stated, the argument is that "people have a right to a judge."

Id. The committee acknowledged that the judicial officer position provided additional judicial personnel to meet rising caseloads, but advised that "[c]aseload requirements should be accommodated not by counties appointing judicial officers, but by the Legislature creating judgeships." Id. at 13. The committee also noted that elimination of the judicial officer position would be consistent with recent legislation intended to consolidate, unify, and standardize the court system throughout the state. Id. Accordingly, the ...


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