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Petitions of the week

Justices asked to review Arizona’s life-without-parole sentencing scheme for youths

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The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

Twelve years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court declared that mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for offenders who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This week, we highlight petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether Arizona’s sentencing law for juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder violates Miller because, although the law allows for the possibility of release, the state abolished parole for homicide in 1994.

Lonnie Bassett was 16 years old in 2004 when he shot and killed the driver and front-seat passenger of a car from the back seat. He was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder.

Under Arizona law, the trial judge could have sentenced Bassett for each count to either life in prison without the possibility of parole or life in prison with the possibility of “release” after 25 years. After hearing from the state — which argued that the killings were particularly heinous — and Bassett — who pointed to his young age, abusive childhood, and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis — the judge split the difference, handing Bassett one of each available sentence.

In reality, however, the two sentences were functionally identical. Arizona had passed a law a decade earlier rendering anyone convicted of homicide, including murder, ineligible for parole. Even if Bassett had received two of the lesser sentences, his only avenues for “release” after 25 years would have been either an exceedingly rare grant of clemency by the governor or a later decision by the legislature to reinstate parole for homicide defendants.

Accordingly, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Miller in 2012, the justices noted that Arizona was one of 29 jurisdictions whose sentencing schemes were unconstitutional because they did not give judges an option to sentence juveniles convicted of serious crimes to life with the possibility of parole.

Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the justices ruled that Miller also applied retroactively – that is, to anyone sentenced before 2012. In light of Montgomery, Bassett sought post-conviction relief to determine whether his sentence was unconstitutional. A trial court in Arizona agreed that Bassett was entitled to a hearing.

On appeal, however, the Arizona Supreme Court denied Bassett’s request for a hearing and dismissed his petition for post-conviction relief. It noted that Miller and Montgomery do not bar sentences of life without parole for juvenile defendants. Rather, the state’s high court explained, those decisions merely require that judges have the opportunity to consider defendants’ youth in deciding whether to grant a lesser sentence. Reasoning that Bassett’s judge had heard evidence about his age and had the option to make him eligible for “release” after 25 years, the court concluded that his sentence is constitutionally sound.

In Bassett v. Arizona, Bassett asks the justices to grant review and reverse the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling. He argues that Miller and Montgomery are not satisfied simply because his judge considered his age at sentencing, when that judge was nonetheless required to issue him a life sentence and parole was categorically unavailable. Pointing to two recent rulings in which the justices chided the Arizona Supreme Court for ignoring their decisions on parole ineligibility, Bassett maintains that this latest ruling is part of that same troubling trend.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Bassett v. Arizona
Issue: Whether the Eighth Amendment permits a juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole under a system that did not afford the sentencing court discretion to choose any other option.

Caswell v. Colorado
Issues: (1) Whether a prior misdemeanor conviction that elevates a subsequent offense from a misdemeanor to a felony is an element of the subsequent offense that must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt under Apprendi v. New Jersey; and (2) whether this court should overrule Almendarez-Torres v. United States as inconsistent with the Sixth Amendment as understood in Apprendi and its progeny.

Credit Bureau Center, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission
Issue: Whether Section 19 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits the award of “any exemplary or punitive damages,” empowers the FTC to seek and a court to award disgorgement of a business’s gross receipts as punishment for violating the act, and therefore impose the same remedy, for the same reasons, and for the same victims under Section 19 as was done under Section 13(b) of the act.

Clement v. Garland
Issue: Whether, when a petitioner challenges a final order of removal by asserting his U.S. citizenship in a timely petition for review, a court of appeals may reject the challenge and affirm the removal order on the ground that the petitioner waived or forfeited the citizenship claim in immigration proceedings.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Justices asked to review Arizona’s life-without-parole sentencing scheme for youths, SCOTUSblog (May. 20, 2024, 1:22 PM),