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SCOTUS: Ban on mandatory life without parole for juveniles is retroactive

Montgomery v. Louisiana, USSC No. 14-280, 2016 WL 280758 (January 25, 2016); reversing and remanding State v. Montgomery, 141 So.3d 264 (La. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), the Court held that sentencing laws mandating life without parole violate the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments with respect to those under age 18 at the time of their crimes; here the Court holds that Miller announced a new substantive rule that is retroactive on state collateral review.

Henry Montgomery was 17 when he killed a deputy sheriff in 1963. A Louisiana jury found him “guilty without capital punishment” which carried an automatic sentence of life without parole. After Miller struck down such mandatory-life-without-parole regimes for juveniles, Montgomery sought collateral relief in the trial court that had convicted him. That court concluded that Miller does not apply retroactively, and the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed.

Before addressing retroactivity, the Court must answer a threshold question: does it have the power to review a state court’s determination a federal constitutional claim is not retroactive? The six-justice majority opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, concludes that it does,  giving constitutional weight to the familiar retroactivity rules of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989):

The Court now holds that when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule. Teague’s conclusion establishing the retroactivity of new substantive rules is best understood as resting upon constitutional premises. That constitutional command is, like all federal law, binding on state courts. This holding is limited to Teague’s first exception for substantive rules; the constitutional status of Teague’s exception for watershed rules of procedure need not be addressed here.

(Slip op. at 20 (citations omitted)) .

Turning to the merits, the Court rejects the notion that Miller established only a required procedure–a sentencing at which the defendant’s youth must be considered as a factor–before a juvenile may receive life without parole.

Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity.’” Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but “‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’” it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for “a class of defendants because of their status”—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. As a result, Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law. Like other substantive rules, Miller is retroactive because it “‘necessarily carr[ies] a significant risk that a defendant’”—here, the vast majority of juvenile offenders— “‘faces a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.’”

(Slip op. at 16-17 (citations omitted)) .

Justice Scalia, dissenting with typical fervor, attacks both of the majority’s holdings, but takes particular exception to the gloss on Miller, accusing the Court of “rewriting” that decision in a covert effort to, practically speaking, outlaw all LWOP sentences for juveniles (not just those, as in Miller, made mandatory by statute):

What the majority expects (and intends) to happen is set forth in the following not-so-subtle invitation: “A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.” Of course. This whole exercise, this whole distortion of Miller, is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders. The Court might have done that expressly (as we know, the Court can decree anything), but that would have been something of an embarrassment. After all, one of the justifications the Court gave for decreeing an end to the death penalty for murders (no matter how many) committed by a juvenile was that life without parole was a severe enough punishment. How could the majority—in an opinion written by the very author of Roper—now say that punishment is also unconstitutional? The Court expressly refused to say so in Miller. So the Court refuses again today, but merely makes imposition of that severe sanction a practical impossibility. And then, in Godfather fashion, the majority makes state legislatures an offer they can’t refuse: Avoid all the utterly impossible nonsense we have prescribed by simply “permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole.” Mission accomplished.

(Slip op. at 14-15 (citations omitted)) .

We will have to wait and see whether Scalia’s dark vision comes to pass. One in-state test case may be that of Omer Ninham, whose life sentence was upheld by the state’s high court in 2011. As Wisconsin Public Radio reports, he has a Wis. Stat. § 974.06 motion pending in the circuit court that has been on hold pending the outcome of Montgomery.

Justice Thomas joins Justice Scalia and dissents separately, addressing the jurisdictional question and, in effect, advising state courts to close their doors to Eighth Amendment sentencing claims and force the federal courts to “shoulder the burden” of applying Miller and Montgomery. (Slip op. at 10).

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