The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the cases of immigrant children pending appeal should be dismissed as moot when they turn 18, even if the lower court erred when the child was still a minor and even if the error prevents the child from applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile status.
In October of 2014, OICL, a 17-year-old immigrant child in Florida, brought a petition for dependency alleging that his parents had abandoned him and that he had no legal custodian. The trial court, Judge James L. Martz, denied the petition in December 2014 and the matter was appealed to the Fourth DCA. The Fourth DCA ruled against the child and the matter was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. FLSCT accepted the case in August 2015.
OICL turned 18 in January 2015.
After 13 months, FLSCT ruled that the matter became moot when OICL turned 18. The Court declined to find that the ancillary benefits of a dependency petition (including immigration status) were sufficient to defeat mootness. The Court also declined to find that the matter was capable of repetition yet evading review. Justices Polston, Quince, Canady, and Lewis were in the majority. Justices Labarga, Pariente, and Perry dissented.
The practical result is that any child petitioning for dependency close to their 18th birthday will not be able to seek appellate review. A judge ruling on those petitions will certainly know that when setting the cases, weighing the evidence, and making a decision. Immigrant children of a certain age have just had their right of access to a fair court system severely curtailed.
On August 16, 2016 the Florida Supreme Court accepted a second SIJ case for review, BRCM. In this case, the petitioner is well under 18. The issue in BRCM, and many of these cases, is that judges have become emboldened to sweep immigrant children out of their courtrooms as quickly as possible. In the case of BRCM, the hearing lasted only 8 minutes before the judge had ruled to dismiss the petition — no notice, no witnesses, no trial.
The Florida Supreme Court has the opportunity to clarify that all people who come before the courts are entitled to a fair and impartial hearing, and that violations of due process will not be tolerated just because of the age and immigration status of the petitioner. If it will not reconsider this harmful ruling, the Florida Supreme Court should direct lower courts to accept these cases for certiorari review, or order expedited briefing schedules to ensure further miscarriages of justice do not occur.