1) Did the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ____, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), adopt a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without parole?
2) Does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect to Miller?
Lower court opinion: State v. Montgomery, 141 So.3d 264 (La. 2014)
This is a replacement case for Toca v. Louisiana, which the Court had taken under review earlier in the term but then dismissed after Toca and Louisiana reached an agreement that resulted in his release from prison. (See our post on the case for more detail.) Here’s the basic background on the issues in the case.
Miller held that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without parole for juvenile offender. The decision did not, however, categorically bar sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole, but instead “mandates only that a sentencing court follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing a particular penalty.” 132 S. Ct. at 2471. Miller voided the juvenile life-without-parole sentencing schemes of the federal government and 29 states (Wisconsin not among them) under which about 2,000 juveniles had been sentenced to die in prison. 132 S. Ct. at 2477 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).
While Miller clearly applied to any offender whose conviction was not yet final, Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314 (1987), the question immediately arose as to whether it applied retroactively to inmates whose convictions were final and who used Miller to challenge their sentence on collateral review. Inmates like Henry Montgomery, for instance, who had just turned age seventeen in 1963 when he killed a police officer. Montgomery was convicted of murder and initially sentenced to death, but his conviction and death sentence were overturned. On retrial he was convicted again and given life without parole. Montgomery sought a review of his sentence in light of Miller, but the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected his claim because it had previously held that Miller doesn’t apply retroactively to sentences that had become final before Miller was decided, State v. Tate, 130 So. 2d 829 (La. 2013), cert. denied, Tate v. Louisiana, No. 13-8915, 134 S. Ct. 2663 (May 27, 2014).
Determining retroactivity requires applying Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which draws a line between decisions that are “procedural” and decisions that are “substantive.” Rules governing procedure are applied prospectively, while substantive criminal rules are applied retroactively. According to a recent tally, five states have held Miller isn’t retroactive, seven states have ruled it is; in addition, four of the six federal courts that have addressed the issue have held Miller isn’t retroactive. Brandon Buskey & Daniel Korobkin, Elevating Substance over Procedure: The Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama under Teague v. Lane, 18 C.U.N.Y. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2015) (available here). The Supreme Court will now resolve this split.
The second issue was added by the Court, and it involves another, more arcane matter of appellate law that arises under Teague. Briefly, under Teague a federal court can’t grant collateral (i.e., habeas) relief to a state prisoner based on a rule announced after the prisoner’s conviction became final unless the new rule falls into one of two narrow exceptions (namely, rules that “plac[e] certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe,” or “watershed rules of criminal procedure” implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding, 489 U. S. at 307, 311). Teague does not, however, limit a state court’s power to grant collateral relief under a new federal rule; states may give broader retroactive effect to a new rule, even if the new rule doesn’t fall into a Teague exception. Danforth v. Minnesota, 552 U.S. 264 (2008).
But what if a state collateral review court declines to apply a new rule retroactively because it decides the rule doesn’t fit into one of the Teague exceptions? Does the correctness of the state court’s Teague analysis create a question of federal law that the Supreme Court can review? A “no” answer to that question would mean a state court that errs in its Teague analysis couldn’t be compelled to grant relief on collateral review even though a federal habeas court could grant relief. Or, as sentencing guru Doug Berman puts it, “[t]he added Montgomery question essentially asks whether a federal issue is presented if state courts decide to give state prisoners in state habeas cases less retroactive benefit than Teague requires.” Thus, the Court’s decision in this case may affect state collateral review cases beyond those addressing the retroactivity of Miller.