People serving life terms for murders they committed as teenagers were looking to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday for signals about whether they will have a chance to seek their freedom.
But the 75-minute high court argument in the case of a Louisiana man who has been imprisoned since 1963 ended with a distinct possibility that the justices could dismiss the case on technical grounds and perhaps take up another inmate’s plea in the spring.
The court spent more time debating whether it has authority to hear the case of Henry Montgomery than it did considering the merits of his claim.
“We weigh in when we have jurisdiction,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, suggesting that the court had no business hearing Montgomery’s case.
Three years ago, the justices struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of release for teenage killers. The main question for the court Tuesday was whether that decision in Miller v. Alabama should be extended retroactively to Montgomery and hundreds of other inmates whose convictions are final.
In the 5-4 decision in 2012, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority that judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” among them immaturity and the failure to understand fully the consequences of their actions.
S. Kyle Duncan, arguing on behalf of the state of Louisiana, said the Alabama decision doesn’t qualify as an extraordinary ruling that should be extended to older cases because it left open the imposition of life without parole for people under 18 if courts take account of a defendant’s circumstances.
“In Miller this court was invited to categorically bar the penalty of life without parole for juveniles who commit murder, but it decided not to do so,” Duncan said.
Justice Kagan disagreed about the significance of the Alabama decision, noting that courts now have to consider less severe punishments. “What the court has done is to say, there have to be other options,” she said.
If the court says it should not have taken up Montgomery’s case, others are waiting, including one from Virginia. The inmate in that case, Shermaine Ali Johnson, was 16 years old when he raped and killed a woman in 1994.
In other Supreme Court news:
Justices review the way Florida decides death penalty cases
Florida’s unique system for imposing the death penalty found a skeptical audience at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday as some justices questioned whether the state gives judges too much power to decide capital sentences.
The court considered an appeal from death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted in the 1998 stabbing death of his manager at a Popeyes restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 in favor of the death penalty, and a judge then imposed the sentence.
Hurst’s lawyer, former U.S. solicitor general Seth Waxman, argued that Florida’s system is unconstitutional because juries play only an advisory role in recommending a death sentence.
“Under Florida law, Timothy Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge, not a jury, made the factual finding that rendered him eligible for death,” Waxman said.
The state requires juries to weigh aggravating factors against other factors, such as a troubled childhood, that might lead them to spare defendants from the death penalty. But the juries have no binding effect on the judge, who weighs those factors independently and can reach a different decision.
Florida is also the only state in which juries don’t have to reach a unanimous verdict to recommend a death sentence or agree on which aggravating factors exist. Waxman said the system goes against a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that says factual findings supporting the death penalty must be made by a jury, not a judge.
In Hurst’s case, prosecutors asked the jury to find two aggravating factors: the murder was committed during a robbery and it was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.” But the jury was not required to say how it voted on each factor. Waxman said it’s possible that only four jurors agreed with one, while three agreed with the other.
Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed concerned that a jury could base its decision on one aggravating factor, but a judge could then rely on a different factor that the jury never considered.
“Theoretically, this could happen,” Justice Kennedy said.
Justice Elena Kagan appeared troubled that the entire appeals process in Florida focuses only on the judge’s findings, suggesting the judge makes “the crucial death penalty eligibility determination.”
Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor said Florida’s system may leave ultimate responsibility to the judge, but it lets the jury decide whether there are facts making a defendant eligible for the death penalty in the first place.
Winsor argued the system gives defendants a “judicial backstop” in having both jury and judge find at least one aggravating factor warranting a death sentence.
Chief Justice John Roberts said in a typical trial, jurors don’t have to agree on a particular basis for the verdict, so there could be “12 different reasons” to find a defendant guilty.
Justice Antonin Scalia noted that if a crime can be satisfied by various elements, jurors don’t have to agree on the same one. But later, Justice Scalia suggested jurors might act differently if they knew their determination of aggravating factors was final, and not subject to a judge’s review. He said it’s “a lot more responsibility” for jurors if they know they have the final word.
Sotomayor officiates at same-sex wedding in Washington
Justice Sonia Sotomayor has presided over the same-sex wedding of the owners of a Washington consulting firm that focuses on Hispanic and gay rights issues.
Ingrid Duran and Catherine Pino are the founders of the consulting firm D&P Creative Strategies. U.S. Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said Sotomayor officiated at their wedding Saturday in Washington.
Arberg said the justice is a friend of the couple.
It was Justice Sotomayor’s first time presiding at such a wedding. She joins colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, as well as retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in conducting same-sex weddings.
The three sitting justices were part of the majority decision in June that extended same-sex marriage nationwide.
Justice Sotomayor’s participation in the wedding ceremony was first reported by the Washington Blade.
Court declines appeal over California’s top-two primary
The U.S. Supreme Court is turning away a challenge from minor political parties in California that claim they are essentially excluded from general election ballots because of the state’s top-two primary system.
The justices on Tuesday rejected an appeal from the Green and Libertarian parties, among others.
California voters approved the new primary system in 2010. The top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of political affiliation. The idea was to fight polarization and encourage primary candidates to appeal to a wider pool of voters.
But minor parties say their candidates almost never are on the ballot in November, when millions more people vote than in the June primaries. The parties say the new system violates their constitutional right of political association.
The case is Rubin v. Padilla, 15-135.
High court won’t hear Utah appeal over road access
The U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear an appeal from Utah officials seeking rights of way over several roads that run through federal lands.
The justices on Tuesday let stand a lower court ruling that said Utah and Kane County could only claim rights to six of 12 routes over which they sought control.
The dispute is one of dozens of lawsuits the state and its counties have filed claiming title to more than 12,000 separate rights of way through federal lands. The contested routes range from graded dirt roads to dry stream beds.
State officials assert their rights under a Civil War-era law that allowed settlers to develop trails over public lands. Environmental groups say increased vehicle access would jeopardize animal habitats and degrade other environmentally sensitive areas.