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October 11, 2020

Arizona Supreme Court rejects Eighth Amendment claims by juvenile offenders given de facto life sentences for multiple offenses

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Arizona handed down a unanimous rejection of claims by multiple juvenile offenders subject to de facto life sentences for multiple sentences in Arizona v. Soto-Fong, No. CR-18-0595 (Ariz. Oct. 9, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the opinion begins and a concluding paragraph:

We consider whether consecutive sentences imposed for separate crimes, when the cumulative sentences exceed a juvenile’s life expectancy, violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”  We conclude that such de facto life sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment, as interpreted in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). Consequently, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery do not constitute a significant change in the law under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g)....

Despite the shifting and confusing reasoning embodied in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery, we are bound by the Supremacy Clause to faithfully apply this jurisprudence as we fairly construe it.  Davis, 206 Ariz. at 384 ¶ 34 n.4.  But because those cases do not address or implicate de facto juvenile life sentences, we decline Petitioners’ invitation to expand this jurisprudence one step beyond its reach.  Our respect for the separation of powers, the will of our citizens, and principles of judicial restraint, rather than dicta from inapposite cases, compel our decision.  Thus, we hold that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit de facto juvenile life sentences.

As this last quoted paragraph may reveal, the Soto-Fong opinion is full of a good deal of snark about the US Supreme Court's rulings in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery.  Discussing Graham, for example, the Arizona Supreme Court calls part of the SCOTUS ruling "dubious" and then takes a "pause" to express "concern" with the Graham opinion’s reference to international law.  Perhaps it is thus unsurprising that the Arizona Supreme Court was seemingly keen to affirm in this case an "enhanced concurrent and consecutive prison sentences totaling nearly 140 years" for a teenager who committed a series of serious arsons.

October 11, 2020 at 10:27 PM | Permalink


This case is destined to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, even with Amy C. Barrett as a Justice!

Posted by: James J. Gormley | Oct 12, 2020 10:01:20 AM

Several state Supreme Courts have reached a similar ruling. So far, the Supreme Court has declined to take up any of them.

My expectation -- and there is a case (Jones) on the reach of Miller and Montgomery on the docket this term -- is that there is not a majority to extend Miller and Montgomery much further. If the Supreme Court takes up this case, it is as likely that they will use it to roll back Montgomery and Miller. Of course, they might just use the Jones case to do that.

Posted by: tmm | Oct 12, 2020 10:19:37 AM

According to the opinion, the guy committed six arsons, all of which involved setting fire to a home while the occupants were at home and asleep, and resulting in the destruction of three homes!

Apparently in this case we do live in a sane world as he is never getting out. Given the high risk of death created by his crimes, I think a saner world would involve the death penalty. It has to be a miracle that no one was killed, and that miracle is not a good reason to give him any mercy.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Oct 13, 2020 12:35:42 AM

It's definitely *not* destined for reversal. As TMM notes, there are many instances in which defendants have asked SCOTUS to say that a sentence that exceeds human life expectancy = LWOP. All have failed.

Posted by: John | Oct 13, 2020 12:42:04 AM

Worth noting that this is pretty much a direct result of a recent expansion of the AZ Supreme Court from five to seven justices given Republicans two more seats on top of their existing 3-2 majority over the fierce and unanimous opposition of Democrats in the state legislature.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 13, 2020 6:36:50 PM

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