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Court to try again on juveniles’ life sentences

The recurring issue of life sentences without the possibility of parole for individuals who commit murder when they were minors is back on the Supreme Court’s decision docket.  The Court granted review of a Louisiana case on that issue, but once more also added a question on whether it had the authority to decide the case.

The basic legal question in the case is whether a juvenile who received a life-without-parole sentence prior to June 2012 may take advantage of the ruling that day in Miller v. Alabama, limiting courts’ authority to impose that kind of sentence for juveniles.  The Court in December had agreed to decide that issue in Toca v. Louisiana, but that case ended in February when the individual involved was released from prison under a plea deal.  The newly granted case of Montgomery v. Louisiana involves Henry Montgomery, who shot and killed a deputy sheriff in 1963, when he was seventeen years old.

Just as it had done in the Toca case, the Court in Montgomery’s case also said it would explore whether it has jurisdiction to decide whether the Louisiana Supreme Court had been wrong in refusing to apply the Miller decision retroactively to pre-2012 sentences.  The jurisdictional question is whether such a refusal by a state court creates a “federal question,” within the Supreme Court’s reach.  If the Court finds it has no authority, it will not reach the retroactivity issue in Henry Montgomery’s case.

The Court also granted a second case, which will be heard and decided at its next Term.  In DirecTV v. Imburgia, the Court will review a conflict between a California state court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over enforcement of an arbitration agreement that makes a reference to state law.  The dispute arises out of consumer complaints that DirecTV illegally charged fees when customers cancelled their service contracts early.  A state court refused DirecTV’s plea to send the dispute to arbitration.

Among a series of orders denying review of new cases, the Justices turned aside a challenge to a Wisconsin law that requires voters to show a photo ID to be able to cast a ballot.  The challengers in Frank v. Walker contended that the law would have a stronger negative impact on the voting rights of black and Latino citizens.  About 300,000 registered voters in the state do not have such an ID, the petition argued.

The challengers told the Court that the law is one of a series of restrictive voter ID laws passed in seventeen states since the Supreme Court last upheld such a law seven years ago.  The Wisconsin law has been upheld in lower federal courts, but has yet to go into effect.  State officials said after the Supreme Court denied review that they will not seek to enforce the law for the April 7 primary election in the state, but that it will be in effect for next year’s federal elections.  Meanwhile, voters in the state on Monday began a new challenge to the law in lower courts.

The Supreme Court gave no explanation for denying review of the issue.  There were no noted dissents.

These were some of the Court’s other actions in orders on Monday:

** It asked the U.S. Solicitor General to provide the federal government’s views on whether the Court should hear four related cases that deal with federal authority to regulate wholesale power rates, when a new power plant is built to increase generating capacity.  There is no set timetable for the government’s response in the cases of Nazarian v. PPL Energyplus, CPV Maryland v. Energyplus, CPV Power Development v. PPL Energyplus, and Fiordaliso v. PPL Energyplus.

** The Court refused to hear challenges by two foreign nations to their detention by U.S. military forces at a prison in Afghanistan, but the Court noted that the two men have recently been transferred to other countries’ custody.  It did wipe out the federal appeals court decision in these two detainees’ cases, a ruling which declared that the right of foreign nationals to challenge their detention — in operation for detainees at Guantanamo Bay — does not extend overseas to Afghanistan.  The denied cases were Amanatullah v. Obama and al-Naja rv. Carter.

** Over the dissents of three Justices, the Court declined to hear a new appeal by a Texas death row inmate, seeking a challenge to a limitation that Texas law formerly imposed on the authority of a jury to consider factors that would help head off a death sentence.  In the case of Bower v. Texas, Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented from the denial, along with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.  The Court had blocked Bower’s scheduled execution in February.  Bower has been on death row more than thirty years for a 1983 murder conviction.



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to try again on juveniles’ life sentences, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 23, 2015, 4:47 PM),