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Juvenile sentencing argument expanded

The Supreme Court on Monday added fifteen minutes to the argument schedule for its hearing October 13 on Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case that could decide which juveniles convicted of murder can take advantage of a 2012 decision limiting sentences of life without parole for minors.  The added time will allow a Court-appointed attorney to argue a question about the Court’s authority to actually rule on the legal issue in the case.

In March, the Justices agreed to hear the appeal of Henry Montgomery of Baton Rouge, who is seeking retroactive application of the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which had all but eliminated states’ power to sentence youths to life without parole, as punishment for committing a murder when they were under the age of eighteen.  In taking on the case, however, the Court also added the question whether it has jurisdiction to review and rule on the Louisiana Supreme Court decision refusing to apply the Miller precedent to cases that had become final before June 25, 2012, when Miller was decided.   Louisiana had raised that issue in a filing in an earlier case on the juvenile sentencing question.

Instead of the usual one hour of argument time, the Court in the Montgomery case will hear seventy-five minutes.  The time will be divided this way: the Court-appointed attorney, Richard Bernstein of Washington, D.C., will have fifteen minutes to argue against the Court’s jurisdiction, Montgomery’s attorney will have fifteen minutes to argue both points, an attorney from the office of the U.S. Solicitor General will have fifteen minutes to argue both issues, and a lawyer for the state of Louisiana will have thirty minutes of time to argue both questions.  The order also said that Bernstein and Montgomery’s lawyer will be allowed to save time for rebuttal.

The federal government, in a brief filed by the Solicitor General, supported Montgomery’s plea to apply Miller retroactively and argued that the Court does have jurisdiction to decide that question.  The brief noted that there are twenty-seven inmates in federal prisons whose sentences could be affected by the retroactivity issue.

After the Court decided the Miller case, it chose to pass up several new cases testing whether that ruling should apply retroactively.  It then agreed in late 2014 to hear the case of Toca v. Louisiana, but that case ended when the individual involved was released from prison under a new plea agreement with the state.  The Montgomery case then arose, and was granted.

On the retroactivity question, the Justices will be dealing with the continuing legal fall-out of a decision they issued in 1989, Teague v. Lane — a ruling in which the Court sought to limit repeated challenges in federal court by state prison inmates to test their convictions or sentences, or both.  The Court laid out a new formula on when a new decision on criminal law would be applied to cases that had become final in state court, but still were making their way through post-conviction proceedings in federal habeas courts.

In Henry Montgomery’s case, the Louisiana Supreme Court interpreted the Teague formula to mean that the Miller decision should not apply retroactively.  That was what Montgomery’s petition challenged.

The separate question of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction arises out of uncertainty over the Teague precedent when a state court applies it, in state post-conviction review, but concludes against retroactive application of a new criminal law rule laid down by the Supreme Court.



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Juvenile sentencing argument expanded, SCOTUSblog (Sep. 14, 2015, 3:11 PM),