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January 25, 2016

SCOTUS declares Miller juve LWOP rule retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana

Via a 6-3 ruling authored by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court this morning decided via Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14–280 (S. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016) (avaialable here), that "Miller announced a substantive rule that is retroactive in cases on collateral review."  This is huge news for lots of reasons, and I will likely have a series of posts on this ruling and its reasoning in the hours and days and weeks ahead.

Intriguingly, the majority opinion for the Court spent relatively more energy justifying jurisdiction in the case than the declaration that Miller is a substantive rule under Teague's framework for retroactive applicaton of new constitutional rules.  In any event, here are a few key passages from the tail end of the Court's Montgomery opinion explaining its ruling:

The Court now holds that Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.  The conclusion that Miller states a substantive rule comports with the principles that informed Teague.  Teague sought to balance the important goals of finality and comity with the liberty interests of those imprisoned pursuant to rules later deemed unconstitutional. 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.

Giving Miller retroactive effect, moreover, does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convic­tions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.  A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.  See, e.g., Wyo. Stat. Ann. §6–10–301(c) (2013) (juvenile homicide offenders eligible for parole after 25 years).  Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions.  Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.  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.

January 25, 2016 at 10:19 AM | Permalink


Scalia in high Scalia mode in dissent.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 25, 2016 10:45:31 AM

The Supreme Court's no burden discussion is flawed. Put in plain English, the discussion puts forward the proposition that "Our decision imposes no burden if the State wishes to surrender and agree that the sentence was wrong. It only imposes a burden if the State thinks that the original sentence was right."

Posted by: tmm | Jan 25, 2016 11:08:42 AM

The excerpt speaks of "onerous burden" not "no" burden.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 25, 2016 11:21:43 AM

Three quick observations on jurisdiction:

1. The Court declined to address the principal jurisdictional argument put forward by the parties and the Solicitor General as amicus (that the Court had jurisdiction under Michigan v. Long). Since the SG pressed the argument pretty vigorously, I expected the Court to comment on it. Is it a slap in the face that the Court chose not to do so?

2. Justice Thomas says states can react to the decision by withdrawing state habeas relief for new federal rules that are deemed substantive. While that would be an interesting occurrence, most states either follow Teague or have retroactivity rules that are more generous than Teague, and so I don't really see a state reacting to Montgomery by narrowing the scope of state habeas relief.

3. Neither the majority nor the dissent addressed pre-Teague cases in which the Supreme Court granted cert to consider whether a new constitutional rule should be applied retroactively on state collateral attack. Those case deserved to be mentioned and (if necessary) explained or distinguished.

Posted by: Da Man | Jan 25, 2016 12:50:22 PM

Da Man: 1) The Long issue was moot in light of the way that the Supreme Court decided the case. By deciding that the first prong of Teague was constitutional, it was irrelevant whether Louisiana's analysis actually applied Teague as a matter of federal law or was a state law version of Teague. (Some language suggests that they saw it as the latter).

While I do not recall it expressly citing to Long, the opinion last week in Carr includes some long type analysis.

2)Justice Thomas (and to some extent the majority opinion) is more talking about the scope of state collateral review -- when is a new claim procedurally barred. Teague solves the retroactivity issue, not necessarily the procedural bar issue. I doubt most states will remove "substantively invalid sentences" from state habeas (and I don't think under the Supremacy Clause they could limit such claims to issues of invalid under state law) as that comes very close to the core of the traditional writ -- protected by many state constitutions.

3) Both sides seem to see Teague as cutting off the old cases. I am not sure that it is entirely true. In my mind, relying in part on, I see two types of collateral review. The first type is de facto direct appeal (those claims that state law require to be brought in a collateral review proceeding rather on direct appeal). Griffith should apply to those types of claims. The second type is discretionary review of "defaulted" claims (i.e. those claims that should have been raised in an earlier case but were not). I think that states have the authority to use procedural bars to limit the use of new case law to raise claims that should have been raised earlier. I think that if the new claim survives the procedural bar, then the Supremacy Clause does not allow the state to disregard the current interpretation of federal law.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 25, 2016 3:30:54 PM

TMM --

It's now moot. But normally the Court will address the argument the parties actually advanced. To go straight to an unraised argument gives ammunition to those who think the Court was trying to find not only jurisdiction, but a basis for jurisdiction that would force the (now retroactive) Miller holding on all states that provide a collateral attack remedy. If the majority wanted the SCOTUS to be portrayed as heavy-handed, it succeeded. If it had found jurisidction based on Michigan v. Long, the all states that have adopted Teague (or a more favorable retroactivity rule) could be said to have voluntarily subscribed to SCOTUS retroactivity pronouncements, instead of conscripted into enforcing them. But perhaps conscription is your idea of "our federalism."

Posted by: Da Man | Jan 25, 2016 4:03:45 PM

Why even bother? The bottom line is that the opinion is a joke. The whole, no it's substantive because it should be rare is embarrassingly thin, and the idea that the standard of "well, was it a reflection of youthful immaturity?" is just laughable.

What's not laughable is that there are real live people out there who have suffered awful predations who now have to fight to keep these killers incarcerated against, in many cases, annoyed bureaucrats who want them to move on.

State courts and governors and legislators should resist this nonsense with all their power. Juvie killers sentenced to LWOP should be permanently barred from parole if they commit a single crime behind bars, and wardens should be on the lookout for opportunities.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2016 10:34:32 PM

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