by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project
It may have been presumptuous to consider Montgomery v. Louisiana a done deal in advance of the Supreme Court oral arguments on the case earlier this month, which concerns the retroactive application of a 2012 ruling that juveniles can’t be mandatorily sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). After all, the Court has invited arguments on four separate cases pertaining to the importance of adolescent development in justice matters in the past five years and ruled favorably in all of them, pointing to science-driven evidence that young people are different when it comes to temptation, ability to foresee consequences, and engagement in risky behaviors.
The justices focused on two points of discussion, neither of which casts any doubt on the established science that concludes that adolescents are less culpable for their role in crimes—even serious crime—and more capable of reform than older defendants. The majority of the 75 minutes of oral arguments was devoted to the issue of jurisdiction, or whether the justices even had the authority to rule on the case, as Montgomery did not make it to the Supreme Court through the usual channels. Instead of working up through lower federal courts, the case emerged directly from Louisiana’s state supreme court which ruled that Miller v. Alabama did not apply to Louisiana’s more than 250 prisoners serving such sentences.
The second topic, to which considerably less time was devoted, was whether either of the two criteria demanding retroactivity of a ruling set forth in Teague v. Lane were met in Miller. On this matter, The Sentencing Project joined with dozens of other groups in submitting an amicus brief in support of the petitioner, arguing that Teague does apply since Miller represents a transformation in law, practice and jurisprudence which corrects for the now-discredited presumption that certain children cannot be reformed. In particular, the amici wrote:
Miller cemented a seismic shift in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence relating to children. Given its significance, its categorical nature, and the precedents from which it descends, Miller is rightly viewed as both substantive and a watershed procedural rule and thus cannot be subjected to the Teague v. Lane bar on retroactivity.