Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Roberts is the Swing Vote

The Supreme Court has ruled that the 8th Amendment's "cruel and unusual" clause prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for minors comitting non-homicidal crimes. That is, teens under 18 who don't kill anybody can't be thrown in jail forever without at least a chance that they can be deemed worthy of another chance.

The Court has previously held that the death penalty can't be applied to juveniles or in cases not involving murder. The present case expanded the Court's examination to life sentences. The "liberal" bloc, as expected, voted to overrule the sentence, whereas the "conservative" wing voted to uphold - except for Roberts, who filed a concurrence with Kennedy's opinion. Roberts would not erect a categorical prohibition, as in Kennedy's opinion, but rather would allow age as a factor in determining the reasonableness of sentences. Thomas dissented: 

Although the text of the Constitution is silent regarding the permissibility of this sentencing practice, and although it would not have offended the standards that prevailed at the founding, the Court insists that the standards of American society have evolved such that the Constitution now requires its prohibition.

The news of this evolution will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people.

The Court does not conclude that life without parole itself is a cruel and unusual punishment. It instead rejects the judgments of those legislatures, judges, and juries regarding what the Court describes as the "moral" question of whether this sentence can ever be "proportionat[e]" when applied to the category of offenders at issue here.

I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this Court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens. Nothing in our training as judges qualifies us for that task, and nothing in Article III gives us that authority

Categories > Courts

Discussions - 2 Comments

The majority got this one right.

"Six jurisdictions do not allow life without parole sentences for any juvenile offenders. Seven jurisdictions permit life without parolefor juvenile offenders, but only for homicide crimes. Thirty-seven States, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government permit sentences of life without parole for a juvenile nonhomicide offender insome circumstances. The State relies on these data to argue that nonational consensus against the sentencing practice in question exists.An examination of actual sentencing practices in those jurisdictionsthat permit life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, however, discloses a consensus against the sentence. Nationwide,there are only 129 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sen-tences for nonhomicide crimes. Because 77 of those offenders are serving sentences imposed in Florida and the other 52 are imprisonedin just 10 States and in the federal system, it appears that only 12 ju-risdictions nationwide in fact impose life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders, while 26 States and the District of Columbia do not impose them despite apparent statutory authoriza-tion. Given that the statistics reflect nearly all juvenile nonhomicide offenders who have received a life without parole sentence stretchingback many years, moreover, it is clear how rare these sentences are, even within the States that do sometimes impose them.'

Thomas's dissent is ridiculous, it isn't a question of if the standards of american society have evolved it is a question of the extent to which they have. Here the case is easily made that Florida is disproportionally sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment.

The courts don't need to make a "moral" judgement in order to overturn florida law. They just need to make a fact based proportionality judgement. Following Weems the court asks if punishment for the crime is graduated and proportioned to the offense. The facts quoted above are sufficient grounds for the majority opinion.

Sorry, John, but it seems to me that Thomas was not saying anything about “moral” judgment or “facts”, but simply that the justices are not granted by the constitution any authority to overturn a sentence given by proper state or local authorities based on how, or to whom it is applied.

If it is EVER permissible, under the constitution, to allow life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for comitting non-homicidal crimes, then it is up to the states and local juries to decide when and how it may be used, not the Supreme Court.

I myself think it is probably not a good idea to forever imprison teens under 18 who don't kill anybody, but I agree with Justice Thomas that that decision is (and should rest) in the hand of local, not federal, authorities.

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