U.S. Supreme Court

States must consider parole for juveniles serving mandatory life sentences, Supreme Court says

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that its 2012 decision barring mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles has retroactive effect.

The court ruled 6-3 in the case of 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, who was 17 when he killed a deputy sheriff. He has spent most of his life in prison under a sentence of life without parole, imposed automatically when jurors declined to sentence Montgomery to death.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion (PDF) for Montgomery v. Louisiana, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The Supreme Court said its 2012 decision Miller v. Alabama is retroactive, and it binds state courts in collateral-review proceedings. Miller found life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of murder constitute cruel and unusual punishment when a youth’s individual characteristics are not allowed to be taken into account.

Kennedy said Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law, rather than a procedural rule, which makes the holding retroactive. “Miller’s conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution,” Kennedy wrote.

State are not required to relitigate sentences in each case where juveniles received a mandatory sentence of life without parole, however. “A state may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them,” Kennedy wrote.

“The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change,” Kennedy wrote.

The opinion said state collateral review courts, as well as federal habeas courts, must give retroactive effect to Supreme Court decisions that announce new substantive rules of constitutional law. “There is no grandfather clause that permits states to enforce punishments the Constitution forbids,” Kennedy wrote. “To conclude otherwise would undercut the Consti­tution’s substantive guarantees.”

The ABA had filed an amicus brief urging the court to make Miller retroactive.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Scalia accuses the majority of relying on irrelevant “dicta cherry picked” from cases, of using “sleight of hand,” and of “acting in Godfather fashion.”

Scalia argued that retroactivity does not apply to postconviction remedies in state courts. “This conscription into federal service of state postconviction courts is nothing short of astonishing,” Scalia wrote.

Scalia also disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that Miller announced a substantive rule. The majority had “rewritten” and expanded Miller beyond its original holding, Scalia argued.

Thomas also wrote a separate dissent.

Related articles:

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: New term’s most important cases—so far”

ABA Journal: “Those convicted as juveniles who are serving life without parole hope the court will go back in time”

ABAJournal.com: “Ban life-without-parole sentences for juveniles retroactively, ABA urges SCOTUS”

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