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SCOTUS tackles juvenile life-without-parole sentences again

Randall Mathena, Warden v. Lee Boyd Malvo, USSC No. 18-217, certiorari granted 3/18/19

Question presented:

Montgomery v. Alabama, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016)), held that the new constitutional rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. Did the the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals err in concluding that Montgomery could be interpreted as modifying and substantively expanding the Miller rule itself, when the issue presented in Montgomery was only the retroactivity of that rule?

Decision below: Malvo v. Mathena, 893 F.3d 265 (4th Cir. 2018)

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With the decision in this case, which won’t come till next Term, we should finally see some resolution of the issues that have arisen since the Supreme Court began limiting the imposition of certain punishments on juvenile offenders. As we’ve noted on this site before, starting 15 years ago the Court began by barring the death penalty for juvenile offenses. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Court barred life-without-release sentences for nonhomicide offenses. Next, in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), it struck down sentencing schemes that mandate life in prison without the possibility of release. Finally, Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), held that Miller applies retroactively.

So what are the issues? The biggest one involves whether Montgomery expanded Miller’s holding to discretionary life-without-release sentencing regimes, thereby imposing some extra level of scrutiny on virtually all life-without-release sentences imposed on a juvenile. This issue arises because, in deciding the retroactivity question, Montgomery elaborated on the reasoning in Miller, holding that even if a sentencing court does consider a child’s age, a life-without-release sentence violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects “unfortunate yet transient immaturity,” as a life-without-release sentence is inappropriate except where the child is so irreparably corrupt that rehabilitation is impossible. 136 S. Ct. at 733-34. As a recent certification to our supreme court regarding this issue noted, there’s a split in other states as to the reach of Miller and effect of Montgomery, with most of them holding that Miller’s reasoning applies to discretionary life sentences. (Certification at 8-10). Our supreme court declined the certification, but now we’ll get the answer from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Apart from the substantive issue regarding juvenile sentencing and the reach of Miller and Montgomery, the issue presented may well also require the Court to say something about how its retroactivity jurisprudence works—and in particular, whether a case deciding the question of the retroactivity of a new rule can itself modify the new rule and further develop the law. Honestly, though, it’s quite impossible to see the Court thinking that should happen. Retroactivity jurisprudence is important because it affects what can be raised on collateral review, and the Court is nothing but stingy when it comes to collateral review; thus, it’s hard to believe they will allow a retroactivity decision to expand the rule being considered for retroactive application and thereby allow more cases to be brought on collateral review.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • severin March 27, 2019, 11:45 am

    As a father of 4 I don’t need read about any “advances in the
    science of adolescent brain development or other relevant research” (from certification) to know how children are different

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