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Analysis: Why two juvenile sentence cases?


With a continuing wave across the country of tougher punishment for youths who commit serious crimes, the Supreme Court on Monday returned to the constitutional controversy that the wave has stirred.  The Court took on two new juvenile sentencing cases that, seemingly, raise the same issue, but apparently left itself the option of treating them differently.  It did not explain, but a few reasons may be suggested.

In a way, it might be said that the Court has been waiting for a case to reach it clearly presenting this issue: is it unconstitutional, under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” to impose a life prison sentence with no chance of early release on a teenager under age 18?  Both new cases — Graham v. Florida (08-7412) and Sullivan v. Florida (08-7621) — raise that issue.

Advocates for youth have been arguing that such a sentence in effect amounts to a death-in-prison sentence, and thus should be judged by the same tough constitutional standard as a sentence directly imposing death.  They thus have been seeking a chance to follow up on the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, striking down altogether the death penalty for minors, a decision based partly on the theory that youths are not as responsible for their actions as adults.

The first post-Roper case to reach the Court testing the Eighth Amendment as it applied to long sentences for youths — Pittman v. South Carolina (07-8436) — was turned aside by the Justices last year.  A 12-year-old, Christopher Frank Pittman, had been convicted of a double murder.  He was given a 30-year prison sentence, without possibility of a parole.  The Court turned aside that case on April 14 of last Term, apparently unready to examine a lengthy sentence when the crime victim was slain.

The next logical test case, it appeared, would be one in which a minor was given a life prison sentence for a crime in which the victim was not killed.  The Court became aware last October that a case on that issue was on its way — the case of Joe Harris Sullivan, who was given life without parole in Florida after a conviction for sexual battery, a crime committed when he was 13 years old.  Before that case was actually filed, however, the case of Terrance Jamar Graham arrived; he was given life without parole in Florida after violating his probation after an earlier guilty plea for armed burglary; he was 17 at the time of the life sentence.

Eventually, the Court considered the two cases together, examined them several times then granted them — separately — on Monday.  It is quite common for the Court, when it has two or more cases raising the same issue, to pick only one for review, or to consolidate them for a joint ruling.  It took neither option this time, setting the stage for two rulings, perhaps with different potential outcomes.

Sullivan’s case, as his lawyers fashioned it, is directly very specifically at life without parole for youths who are only 13 years old (or younger).  Their petition contends that these younger children are more fully shielded by the Eighth Amendment than older teenagers — such as, presumably, a 17-year-old like Graham.

But the Sullivan petition raises a separate issue: is he entitled to a ruling on his Eighth Amendment challenge years after his conviction — he was sentenced nearly 20 years ago, and now is unable or very unlikely to be able to get any lower court to review his claim, yet, his lawyers say, the Court’s more recent Eighth Amendment rulings suggest that he should be able to test his sentence even now.

The Court will hear both issues, and thus there is at least a chance that Sullivan might not be allowed to raise his constitutional argument, because it could be found to have come too late.

The Graham case only involves the specific issue of an Eighth Amendment violation in a life without parole sentence for a minor.  Thus, the Court may have wanted a second case before it in case it should find that Sullivan did not present that claim properly.

Another difference between the two, of course, is the youths’ relative age.  The Court, if it reached the life sentence issue in Sullivan, might be more sympathetic to a youth of his age getting a life term for a sexual crime that left the victim injured, but not dead.  The Court last Term ruled out a death sentence for such a crime (in Kennedy v. Louisiana, involving a child victim who was not killed).

Graham, by contrast, is four years older, and was given a life prison term after returning to criminal activity after being spared a long prison term for an earlier episode.  Some members of the Court may have found him a less sympathetic figure, and wanted to have that case on the docket to perhaps limit the scope of any ruling that went against life terms for teenagers.

Indeed, it might be speculated that the Court spent most of a month looking at these two cases as it tried to sort out just what it wanted before it, and the grant of both cases might well have been a compromise between the Court’s two ideological wings.   The Court has been split deeply in its most recent rulings limiting the scope of the death penalty, and there is no reason to anticipate a more unified bench on this new controversy involving life without parole — a severe sentence for a minor.

The Court will hold oral argument on the two cases in the Term starting Oct. 5, very likely in tandem hearings on the same day.