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01/23/98 A.A. v. PEOPLE STATE ILLINOIS

January 23, 1998

IN RE A.A., A MINOR (THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, APPELLANT,
v.
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE).



The Honorable Justice Nickels delivered the opinion of the court.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nickels

The Honorable Justice NICKELS delivered the opinion of the court:

These consolidated appeals concern the constitutionality of legislation preventing minors 13 years of age or older who have been charged with a criminal offense or adjudicated delinquent from being committed to or placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The two appeals arise from orders in separate proceedings in the circuit court of St. Clair County, both concerning custody of the same minor, A.A. In Docket No. 81711, DCFS appeals from an order of the trial court declaring sections 2-10 and 2-27 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-10, 2-27 (West 1994)) unconstitutional under the equal protection clauses of the Illinois and United States Constitutions, and placing A.A. in the custody of DCFS. Since the trial court declared a portion of a statute of this state unconstitutional, we have jurisdiction to hear DCFS's direct appeal to this court pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302(a) (134 Ill. 2d R. 302(a)). In Docket No. 81800, DCFS filed a petition under Supreme Court Rule 306(a)(5) (166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(5)) for leave to appeal to the appellate court from an interlocutory order entered by the circuit court awarding temporary custody of A.A. to DCFS. The appellate court allowed the petition. Thereafter, DCFS filed a motion to transfer the appeal to this court under Supreme Court Rule 302(b) (134 Ill. 2d R. 302(b)) and to consolidate the appeal with No. 81711. We allowed the motion.

For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the orders of the circuit court and remand the causes for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

A.A. was born in September 1980, and has a significant history of behavioral problems. At some point in time, A.A.'s older sister was appointed as his legal guardian under the Probate Act of 1975 (755 ILCS 5/1-1 et seq. (West 1994)). However, due to A.A.'s unmanageable behavior, his sister filed a petition in the circuit court of St. Clair County to terminate her guardianship. The trial court granted the petition and ordered that A.A. be placed in the temporary custody of DCFS. The court further ordered the office of the State's Attorney of St. Clair County to "file appropriate pleadings to place custody and guardianship of [A.A.] with ." On March 27, 1996, the State filed a petition under the Juvenile Court Act to adjudicate A.A. a neglected minor on the basis that his mother "refuses to provide [A.A.] with proper or necessary support, education or medical or re-medial [ sic ] care necessary for [A.A.'s] well-being and has abandoned [A.A.] in that she refuses to allow the minor to live with her and she refuses to provide support of any kind." The petition requested that DCFS's Guardianship Administrator be appointed guardian of the person of A.A. At a hearing on April 15, 1996, A.A.'s mother admitted the allegations of neglect and, on the same day, an order was entered finding A.A. to be neglected, making him a ward of the court, appointing DCFS's guardianship administrator as A.A.'s guardian, and placing A.A. in the custody of DCFS.

DCFS subsequently moved to intervene in both the probate proceedings and the neglect proceedings under Juvenile Court Act. DCFS sought reconsideration of the custody orders entered in both proceedings, arguing that because A.A. was over the age of 13 and had previously been adjudicated delinquent, he was statutorily ineligible for placement in the custody of DCFS under recent amendments to the Juvenile Court Act (see Pub. Act 89-21, art. 15, § 15-15, eff. July 1, 1995 (amending 705 ILCS 405/2-10, 2-27 (West 1994))) and the Children and Family Services Act (see Pub. Act 89-21, art. 5, § 5-15, eff. June 6, 1995 (amending 20 ILCS 505/5(l) (West 1994))). The record reflects that in 1995, A.A. was adjudicated delinquent based on charges of burglary and residential burglary. The State responded that the amendments to the Juvenile Court Act and the Children and Family Services Act violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions. The trial court in the neglect proceedings under the Juvenile Court Act agreed. The court concluded that there was no rational basis for preventing the class of minors 13 years of age or older charged with an offense or adjudicated delinquent from receiving custodial care by DCFS. These appeals followed.

ANALYSIS

At the outset, we note that at the time of the trial court's decision, the constitutionality of the provisions at issue had already been upheld against an equal protection challenge by the Appellate Court, Second District, in In re C.T., 281 Ill. App. 3d 189, 217 Ill. Dec. 219, 666 N.E.2d 888 (1996). The record reflects that the trial court was apprised of the decision in C.T., but the trial court inexplicably failed to follow it. It is the absolute duty of the circuit court to follow the decisions of the appellate court. See generally State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Yapejian, 152 Ill. 2d 533, 539-40, 178 Ill. Dec. 745, 605 N.E.2d 539 (1992).

We turn now to the merits of the equal protection question raised in these appeals. The analysis applied by this court in assessing equal protection claims is the same under both the United States and the Illinois Constitutions. Jacobson v. Department of Public Aid, 171 Ill. 2d 314, 322, 216 Ill. Dec. 96, 664 N.E.2d 1024 (1996). The guarantee of equal protection requires that the government treat similarly situated individuals in a similar manner. Jacobson, 171 Ill. 2d at 322. While the government may not accord different treatment to persons who have been placed by statute into different classes on the basis of criteria wholly unrelated to the purpose of legislation, the equal protection clause does not forbid the legislature from drawing proper distinctions in legislation among different categories of people. See Jacobson, 171 Ill. 2d at 322. The level of scrutiny applied in reviewing legislative classifications under the equal protection guarantee depends on the nature of the classification: those based on race or national origin, or affecting fundamental rights, receive a heightened level of review under the strict scrutiny standard, whereas economic and social welfare legislation is reviewed under the highly deferential rational basis test. Jacobson, 171 Ill. 2d at 322-23.

Mindful of these principles, we examine the statutory provisions at issue in the present case. Section 2-27 of the Juvenile Court Act provides, in pertinent part:

"(1) If the court determines *** [that] the parents, guardian, or legal custodian of a minor adjudged a ward of the court are unfit or are unable, for some reason other than financial circumstances alone, to care for, protect, train or discipline the minor or are unwilling to do so, and that it is in the best interest of the minor to take him from the custody of his parents, guardian or custodian, the court may *** :

(a) place him in the custody of a suitable relative or other person as legal ...


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