For the third time in recent years, the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider putting a limit on the severity of punishment for youths who commit serious crimes before they are 18 years old. Two youths who were 14-year-olds at the time of their crimes — one in Alabama, the other in Arkansas — have asked the Justices to rule that it is unconstitutional to impose on a minor a sentence of life in prison without a chance for parole in a murder case. In one of the cases, there is an added claim that such a sentence may not be imposed if the youth did not personally kill the victim or intend that someone be killed.
The Court has shown a special concern for youthful criminals, treating them as less responsible than adults for what they do and therefore entitled to more leniency when they are sentenced. In 2005, it barred the death penalty for those who commit murder when they are minors. In 2010, it barred life-without-parole sentences for minors who commit serious crimes, but that ruling only dealt with non-homicide crimes. The grant on Monday will now consider extending that second ruling to youths convicted of murder.
The cases are Miller v. Alabama (docket 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647); the Court granted review of the two separately, but said that it will hear oral arguments in them back-to-back. Those hearings are likely to be in late February, with the decision before next summer.
In each case, the youth is defended by lawyers for the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. The petitions argued that there is now a “national consensus” against a life-without-parole sentence for one as young as 14. That punishment, the lawyers contended, is imposed rarely even where it is allowed under state law. Only 73 youths are now serving that sentence nationwide, the petition said. Only 18 states have imposed such a sentence on a youth of that age, it added.
Since 1990, the petitions said, a total of 3,632 youths who were 14 years old or younger were arrested for homicide, yet only 58 of them — less than two percent — have received life-without-parole sentences.
While the stress in both cases is on the fact that each youth was 14 at the time of the crime, the Court would not be likely to confine its ruling to that specific age, but to the entire category of youths who are under age 18. Its prior rulings limiting punishment for teenagers have used the 18th birthday as the constitutional dividing line.
In the Alabama case, Evan James Miller was convicted of killing a neighbor in a trailer park, the Country Life Trailer Court near the small town of Speake in the rural, north-central part of the state. In July 2003, Miller and another youth had been drinking with Miller’s 52-year-0ld neighbor, Cole Cannon, when a fight broke out. Miller was later convicted of beating Cannon so severely that he could not get up from the floor, and died of inhaling smoke after Miller had set fire to the trailer, apparently to cover up evidence of the crime.
In the Arkansas case, Kuntrell Jackson, who had grown up in crime-ridden housing projects in Blytheville, decided in November 1999, along with two other boys, to rob a local video store. The two boys, older than Kuntrell, went into the Movie Magic store, and one of those two allegedly shot and killed the clerk, Laurie Troup, after she had refused a demand for money. Kuntrell had entered the store after the other two boys, and claimed that his only role was to be a lookout; after the shooting, the three fled without taking any money.
In both cases, their lawyers argued that a life-without-parole sentence for a minor violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” The petitions relied heavily upon the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, ending the death penalty for youths who commit murder as minors, and the Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, ending life-without-parole for those who commit non-homicide crimes as minors.
In addition to granting those cases, the Court agreed to hear an appeal by local officials in St. Paul, Minn., testing whether the federal Fair Housing Act gives landlords who rent to minority individuals or families a right to challenge a city housing code, on the theory that its impact will fall most heavily upon their minority tenants. The St. Paul housing code requires properties to remain in habitable condition. The landlords contended in their lawsuit that city officials have been aggressive in enforcing those requirements, with the hardest impact on minority occupants. The case is Magner v. Gallagher(10-1032). The petition argued that federal appeals courts are split on whether the federal Housing Act allows such claims of a “disparate impact” on minorities.
In other actions:
* The Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General to provide the views of the federal government on whether a jury has the authority to find that a new invention cannot be patented, because it is only an obvious variation on existing mechanisms or processes, even though the U.S. Patent Office has found the invention was eligible for a patent. The petition in Saint-Gobain Ceramics & Plastics v. Siemens Medical Solutions USA (11-301) involves a Siemens patent on crystals that are used to detect gamma rays from a patient’s body after an injection of a radioactive isotope to assist in medical imaging. Saint-Gobain manufacturers such crystals under a license with another patent holder. A jury ruled that the patent on which Saint-Gobain was relying was not valid, because it was obvious to those who were aware of the Siemens patent. Thus, the jury found Saint-Gomain had infringed on the Siemens patent, and awarded $52.3 million in damages.
* The Court cleared the way for the state of Texas to go ahead with the execution of a man, Duane Edward Buck, whom the Court had temporarily spared in September. Buck has been convicted of the shooting murders of his former girlfriend and a man he accused of being her lover, after arguments in the girlfriend’s apartment outside Houston in 1995. Buck’s petition for review (11-6391) had argued that prosecutors used his race to help persuade the jury to impose a death sentence. The Court on Monday denied review of that petition, but the denial produced two separate opinions. One, by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., for himself and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Antonin Scalia, said it was the fault of defense attorneys that a medical examiner had appeared at the trial and made the argument that black men are more likely to be dangerous than white men. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented from the denial, contending that prosecutors had made repeated uses of that examiner to make the same point in other trials, and that prosecutors also had engaged in misleading comments or omissions when some of these cases ended up in federal habeas courts.
* In an unsigned, summary opinion, the Court ordered a state appeals court in Florida to reconsider its ruling in a case growing out of the massive losses suffered by investors due to the “Ponzi scheme” created by Bernard L. Madoff. Investors had sued an accounting firm for Madoff, KPMG LLP, but the firm argued that the investors were obliged to take their grievances to an arbitrator. The issue in the petition (KPMG v. Cocchi, et al., 10-1521) was whether the federal arbitration law requires a state court to enforce an arbitration clause, even if some of the claims are not covered by such a clause.
* Among the cases the Court turned aside on Monday was a petition (docket 11-26) by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, complaining that Puerto Rico officials in seeking to combat urban crime had put new physical barriers up in residential neighborhoods, impairing the Society’s right do its house-to-house religious canvassing on behalf of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. The Court also declined to resolve a copyright dispute over who originated the story line for the television show, “Ghost Hunters.” The petition in Pilgrim Films & Television v. Montz (11-143) sought clarification of how far federal copyright law goes to bar claims by authors based upon state law.
* The Court postponed the issue of whether it should now declare to be moot a case that the Court has agreed to hear on the duty of a labor union to justify a special increase in dues when the money may be used, at least in part, to pay for the union’s political activity over the objection of some dues-paying, non-members of the union. The case is Knox, et al., v. Service Employees International Union Local 1000 (docket 10-1121). The union local contends that the case is now moot because it has offered to refund all of the increase to workers who seek it. The Court said it would consider the mootness issue when it holds a hearing on the case, not yet set.