Does the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing schemes requiring juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, apply retroactively to cases on collateral review, and does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction to decide this issue?
This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to determine whether Miller v. Alabama’s prohibition of mandatory sentencing schemes requiring juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole applies retroactively to offenders seeking collateral review. Montgomery argues that Miller applies retroactively, because it announces a new substantive rule altering the range of available sentencing options, and it establishes a substantive right to individualized sentencing for juveniles facing life without parole. However, Louisiana argues that Miller does not apply retroactively because it proscribes a procedural rather than a substantive rule. The Court’s decision will impact the treatment of juveniles in sentencing proceedings.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
- Did Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) adopt a new substantive rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review?
- Does this Court have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to this Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama?
In 1963, 17-year-old Henry Montgomery was arrested for the murder of Sheriff Deputy Charles Hurt in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Montgomery was convicted of murder and received the death penalty. Louisiana’s capital punishment scheme did not include a sentencing phase, so Montgomery did not present mitigating evidence. In 1966, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned Montgomery’s conviction. The Court determined that Montgomery’s trial was prejudiced because the trial started on “Charles Hurt Memorial Day,” and there were reports of Ku Klux Klan activity before the trial began.
In 1969, Montgomery’s case was retried under an updated version of Louisiana’s capital punishment scheme, which denied Montgomery the opportunity to present evidence to mitigate his sentence. The jury returned a verdict of “guilty without capital punishment.” Montgomery “received a mandatory life without parole sentence for an offense committed when he was a juvenile.” On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __ (2012), in which it held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing schemes that require juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. In response to this decision, Montgomery filed a pro se motion in East Baton Rouge Parish District Court, requesting that the Court correct his sentence. Montgomery argued that his sentence was illegal in light of Miller. The State of Louisiana objected to Montgomery’s motion, contending that Miller does not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. In 2013, the district court denied Montgomery’s motion, so he filed a supervisory writ application in the State of Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeals transferred the application to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
While Montgomery’s application was pending, the “Louisiana Supreme Court held in another case that ‘Miller does not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review.’” The Louisiana Supreme Court stated that the Court’s decision in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) established the standard for determining retroactivity. In Teague, the Supreme Court identified two instances in which a new rule would apply retroactively to cases on collateral review: “when the new rule is (a) a substantive rule’ or (b) a ‘watershed’ rule of criminal procedure.” See The Louisiana Court stated that the Teague standards apply to all cases on collateral review in Louisiana state courts; but, that Miller did not apply retroactively under the Teague test.
Montgomery filed a petition for writ of certiorari. The Court granted cert.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether its ruling in Miller—holding that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment—applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. Montgomery argues that Miller created a substantive rule that applies retroactively. Consequently, Montgomery claims that his sentence is unconstitutional, and that he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing with the possibility of parole. Louisiana argues that Miller should not be applied retroactively, because it is a procedural rule—rather than a substantive rule—that only requires a court to consider certain mitigating factors before sentencing a juvenile to life-in-prison without parole. Both parties agree that the Court has jurisdiction to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling.
DOES THE COURT'S PRECEDENT REQUIRE THAT MILLER BE APPLIED RETROACTIVELY?
Montgomery asserts that the Court in Teague “recognized two circumstances where retroactive application of a new constitutional rule is required: when the new rule is (a) a substantive rule; or (b) a ‘watershed’ rule of criminal procedure.” Montgomery argues that the Court in Miller adopted a new substantive rule; therefore, the Miller decision should apply retroactively. Montgomery provides four reasons. First, Montgomery explains that the Court defined a substantive rule as one that prohibits the state from imposing a certain type of penalty. Accordingly, Montgomery argues that Miller prohibits a “category of punishment,” that is, mandatory life without parole for juveniles. This categorical bar, according to Montgomery, creates a new substantive rule that must apply retroactively. Second, Montgomery claims that Miller recognized a substantive right for juvenile homicide offenders to have individualized sentencing. Montgomery explains that the Court, in connection with capital sentencing cases, declared that the Eighth Amendment requires states to provide individualized sentencing, although their procedures may differ. Montgomery asserts that, for juveniles, life without parole is “akin” to the death penalty, which makes individualized sentencing just as essential for juveniles.Third, Montgomery contends that Miller requires courts to consider certain factors, which must be considered in connection with sentencing, and without considering these factors, sentencing cannot be imposed. Montgomery argues that this would not be the case if the factors were merely “procedural.”
Finally, Montgomery argues that “Miller’s prohibition on sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole” was based on two “doctrinal strands”: (1) the Court’s decisions in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), which banned the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses; and (2) the Woodson line of cases, which prohibited mandatory capital punishment, and instead required sentencers to consider mitigating factors and the details of the offense before imposing a death sentence on a juvenile. By linking the rule in Miller with these retroactively applied strands of doctrine, Montgomery asserts that the Court identified the Miller rule as one that must be applied retroactively. Quoting Teague, Montgomery states, “[I]f we hold in Case One that a particular type of rule applies retroactively . . . and hold in Case Two that a given rule is of that  type, then it  follows that the given rule applies retroactively.”
Louisiana contends that the Miller court established a procedural rule; therefore, under Teague, the Miller decision should not apply retroactively. Louisiana challenges Montgomery’s interpretation that the rule established in Miller categorically barred life without parole sentences for juveniles. Louisiana argues that the Miller decision explicitly stated that it did not categorically ban life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. Louisiana explains that the Miller decision only changed the procedure that a court must follow before imposing a life sentence without parole to a juvenile offender.
Furthermore, Louisiana disagrees with Montgomery’s assertion that the right to individualized sentencing is a substantive right. Louisiana asserts that a decision implicates a substantive right only if it changes elements of an offense by modifying the conduct that is punishable by the State or “‘rendering some formerly unlawful conduct lawful or vice versa.’” Louisiana argues that Miller does not change the elements of the underlying criminal conduct. Instead, Miller only requires that a judge or jury consider certain mitigating factors before imposing a life sentence without parole. Louisiana maintains that this requirement for judges and juries to engage in individualized sentencing provides a process for imposing life sentences without parole to juvenile offenders. Finally, Louisiana concludes that precedent does not support retroactivity, but instead supports the state’s assertion that Miller established a procedural rule, which does not apply retroactively. Louisiana explains that the Court has considered similar cases that, like Miller, require the sentencer to consider mitigating factors before imposing the death penalty, and contends that the Court has held that new sentencing rules are not retroactive under Teague. Louisiana also disagrees with Montgomery’s reliance on the Woodson line of cases, arguing that the Court did not hold that Woodson’s prohibition on mandatory capital punishment applied retroactively.
IS THE MILLER RULE A WATERSHED RULE OF PROCEDURE?
In the alternative, Montgomery argues that the rule announced in Miller is a watershed rule of procedure. According to Montgomery, the Court defined a procedural rule as a rule that is necessary to prevent the risk of inaccuracy in criminal proceedings and change the understanding of the procedural elements required for a fair proceeding. Montgomery maintains that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles creates a risk of imposing harsh sentences that are disproportionate to the conduct given the juvenile’s limited development. Montgomery contends that requiring courts to consider certain factors before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole “changes the bedrock procedural elements necessary to assure the constitutional fairness of such a proceeding.”
Louisiana argues that the Court should not consider whether Miller is a watershed rule of procedure, because the Court did not grant certiorari to decide this claim. Should the Court reach this question, Louisiana contends that Miller failed to establish a watershed rule. Louisiana argues that the Court has never deemed a rule retroactive under the watershed exception, although it acknowledges that Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) is one example of a watershed rule. Furthermore, the State argues that the rule in Miller does not enact profound change on the criminal justice system or alter our understanding of the procedures necessary to ensure a fair trial.
The Supreme Court will determine whether Miller v. Alabama “adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.” Montgomery argues that Miller applies retroactively, because it announces a new substantive rule that changes the span of potential sentencing options; it sets-up a substantive right to individualized sentencing for juveniles; and it requires the sentencer to take into account certain factors before sentencing juveniles to life without parole. Louisiana argues that Miller does not apply retroactively because it proscribes a procedural rule rather than a substantive rule. The Court’s decision will impact how courts treat the sentencing of juvenile offenders, as well as how states approach their rehabilitation.
SHOULD JUVENILE SENTENCING BE TREATED DIFFERENTLY THAN ADULT SENTENCING?
The Northwestern University School of Law’s Children and Family Justice Center and Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (collectively, the “Center”), in support of Montgomery, argues that Miller applies retroactively, because the Court acknowledged in Miller that “children are different,” which represents a substantive rule. The Center notes that the Court has frequently recognized that juvenile offenders are less culpable than adults. The Center argues that this difference in culpability is based on the neurological differences between children and adults. The Center states that juveniles lack maturity and have underdeveloped senses of responsibility, which causes recklessness, risk-taking, and impulsivity. The Center concludes that it would be inequitable to afford one generation of juvenile offenders the benefit of these scientific insights nad deny another different generation the same benefit. The Center maintains that “[s]uch a result would contravene logic, common sense, and basic notions of equity that dictate that similarly situated citizens are treated similarly under the law.”
Becky Wilson and the National Association of Victims of Juvenile Murderers (“National Association”), in support of the Louisiana, argues that the Court should not apply Miller retroactively, because it disrespects the victims of juvenile murders. The National Association asserts that since Miller relies “on a neurological understanding of the juvenile brain,” the Court must consider the neurological effects of the murder on the victim’s family and friends. The National Association contends that the trauma from these crimes changes the way the victim’s family members process memories, and neuroscience demonstrates that re-sentencing leads to re-traumatization. The National Association concludes that applying Miller retroactively will deprive the victim’s family members “of the sense of finality that came with the [original] verdict and sentence.”
ARE JUVENILES CAPABLE OF REHABILITATION?
Former juvenile court judges, in support of Montgomery, argue that the Court should apply Miller retroactively, because juvenile offenders are uniquely positioned to gain from rehabilitation programs. Moreover, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights contends that the Court should apply Miller retroactively, because juveniles’ unique traits require individualized sentencing. The Louisiana Center argues that juveniles are more receptive to rehabilitation, because neurological growth can eliminate irrational and risky behavior. The former juvenile court judges note that it is challenging for juvenile offenders to engage in rehabilitative programs, because the programs are frequently unavailable to offenders sentenced to life without parole. But the former judges contend that that the criminal justice system is equipped to apply Miller retroactively, pointing to applications in Iowa, California, and Massachusetts as examples.
The National District Attorneys Association, in support of Louisiana, argues that rehabilitation should not be a factor that is taken into consideration because offenders fabricate “claims of rehabilitation.” Additionally, the National District Attorneys Association states that there is no way to confirm that mental health and behavioral problems existed when an offender “claims to have made significant progress from their youth.” And contrary to the former juvenile judges’ contention, several states argue that the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to apply Miller retroactively, because witnesses, police officers, and family members have moved on and medical professionals will need to conduct new investigations, “which is difficult in most cases and impossible in some.”
In this case, the Court will decide whether Miller’s prohibition on mandatory sentencing schemes requiring juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole applies retroactively to offenders seeking collateral review. Montgomery argues that the Miller Court established a substantive rule or, alternatively, a watershed procedural rule, which should apply retroactively. Louisiana argues that Miller should not be applied retroactively because it established a procedural rule, not a substantive rule. The Court’s decision will clarify whether those juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole will have the opportunity to be resentenced.
- Lauren Walker, Supreme Court to Revisit Ruling on Life Sentences for Juveniles, Newsweek (March 24, 2015).
- Matt Stroud, The Supreme Court Takes One more Look at Life Sentences for Teenagers, Bloomberg (March 23, 2015).