Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 17, 2010

NO MORE LIFE SENTENCES FOR MINORS WHO HAVEN'T MURDERED.... In yet another 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said this morning that incarcerated minors can't receive life sentences if they haven't killed anyone.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

"The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. "This the Eighth Amendment does not permit."

The Eighth Amendment, of course, prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissented. Chief Justice John Roberts also sided with the minority, though he agreed with the majority on the specific case of Terrance Graham's fate.

In Justice Kennedy's majority ruling, he made note of the "global consensus" against life-sentences for youths who haven't committed murder. The sentence will likely enrage the far-right, which tends to throw a fit when justices take note of international developments.

In a concurrence, Stevens, joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor, threw an elbow at one of their colleagues: "While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old ... Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so."

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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Wait Thomas wrote the opinion?

You know I used to respect him. Sure he was a cruel defender of privilege, but at least he wasn't the hypocrite Scalia was. And then I came across his analogy on affirmative action and that analogy was so poorly structured and fool of holes that I have never been able to look at him with anything but bewildered disapproval ever since.

Posted by: MNPundit on May 17, 2010 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

Global consensus??? Evolving standards of justice???????

I can hear the screams from the far right already. One World Government! Judicial relativism! Hitler! Stalin! ZOMG!!!!!!

Posted by: jvwalt on May 17, 2010 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

The RATS strike again.

Posted by: MsJoanne on May 17, 2010 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Wait Thomas wrote the opinion?

No, the dissent.

Posted by: DJ on May 17, 2010 at 11:35 AM | PERMALINK

"... Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so."

Nice dig - in one sentence, you have two things Conservatives hate and don't believe in: decency and evolution.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on May 17, 2010 at 11:35 AM | PERMALINK

There is no other issue that so defines conservative justices as irredentist corporatists than their notions of what constitutes unjust punishment, whether under the 8th amendment or some more general notion of due process. How can it be unreasonable to impose runaway punitive damages on a business but completely reasonable to throw a person in jail for life, either as a juvenile, as in this case, or for relatively minor crimes, as in California's three strikes law?

The worst that can happen to a business is that it will go bankrupt.

Posted by: Barbara on May 17, 2010 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

God forbid that we should, like Jefferson, accord a

"decent respect to the opinions of mankind"

Posted by: Dave in DC on May 17, 2010 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

From c u n d gulag


Standards of decency have evolved
Nice dig - in one sentence, you have two things Conservatives hate and don't believe in: decency and evolution.

Also, standards... it's a hat trick!

Posted by: Bernard Gilroy on May 17, 2010 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissented. Chief Justice John Roberts also sided with the minority

Why I’m shocked, SHOCKED !


Standards of decency have evolved since 1980

Not with the American RightWing.

Posted by: Joe Friday on May 17, 2010 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Stevens aint necessarily right about standards of decency ever improving... eg, he's leaving, and Thomas is stayin'...

Posted by: neill on May 17, 2010 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

Wait Thomas wrote the opinion?
No, the dissent.

It's a bit of a shocker to discover he can write. Legal opinions, that is.


Posted by: Midland on May 17, 2010 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

As per usual Neill your a douchebag. Your comment makes no sense whatsoever.

Posted by: Gandalf` on May 17, 2010 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

On a somewhat related topic, I do wish you (Political Animal) would respond to Obama's speech threatening indefinite detention for those suspected of FUTURE terrorist attacks.

Rachel Maddow is on the case here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uuWVHT1WUY

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on May 17, 2010 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

Not surprising that Scalia and his twisted little cronies (Roberts, Alito and Thomas)would disagree. They rarely object to the state abusing citizens but heaven forbid the state should ever do much as slightly regulate any corporate entity. Remember it's Scalia who believes there's no reason not to execute someone who is factually innocent so long as he received a "fair" trial: "This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."

Posted by: GringoNoraca on May 17, 2010 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

You state, "NO MORE LIFE SENTENCES FOR MINORS WHO HAVEN'T MURDERED"

The decision says kids can receive life sentences as long as there is the possibility of parole. Possibility of freedom =/= no life sentences.

Posted by: OG on May 17, 2010 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

Thomas notes on page 3 of his dissent that the 8th Amendment states: "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Yet, by page 5 he states: "The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting a cruel and unusual method of punishment upon a defendant." Funny little thing that insertion of "method of" is. Only with Thomas' editing of the constitution does he have anything to argue.

Posted by: milo on May 17, 2010 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

It's a bit of a shocker to discover he can write. Legal opinions, that is.

Those are mostly written by law clerks.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on May 17, 2010 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

"While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old"

Is there any support for this accusation of insanity or is it reckless hyperbole?

If the former, OMG. If the latter, I cannot help but think that such jests may be seen by their critics as an opportunity to claim their legal arguments should not be taken seriously.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on May 17, 2010 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Barbara sez: "The worst that can happen to a business is that it will go bankrupt."

Yes, but: Bankruptcy IS a "Death Sentence", in that the corporation (under some forms of bankruptcy) will cease to exist.

A cruel and unusual punishment, in that they didn't kill anyone.

-Just stole the life savings of millions of innocent people. . .

Posted by: DAY on May 17, 2010 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

The vote was actually 6-3; Roberts concurred.

Posted by: nped on May 17, 2010 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

Be careful, Daryl; Roberts actually concurred that the juvie's sentence was unconstitutional, he just disagreed with the majority's legal reasoning. Let's not become like conservatives who overlook facts in their reactionary responses to everything.

Posted by: nped on May 17, 2010 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Oops, many apologies, Daryl; that was gringo who wrote the post I responded to.

Posted by: nped on May 17, 2010 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

DAY notes "Bankruptcy IS a "Death Sentence", in that the corporation (under some forms of bankruptcy) will cease to exist."

It makes little sense to equate folding an on-paper legal construct to the physical death of an individual. No corporate officers or board members actually perish when a corporation "dies" - although in some cases, maybe they should.

Posted by: Zandru on May 17, 2010 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

nped,

I didn't say anything about the ruling. My post was off-topic, about indefinite detentions for those suspected of future terrorist activities.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on May 17, 2010 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

I am still waiting for someone from Goldman $achs to be charged. Perspective: High Crimes and misdemeanors indeed.

Posted by: john R on May 17, 2010 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

When a corporation dies there is nothing to stop the people who own it from starting over. Losing money isn't the same as losing one's life or even one's freedom. That's why the sentences for kidnap and murder are almost always longer than for theft. That the justices find the lives and freedom of some people less worthy of protection than the money of others as speaks volumes.

Posted by: Barbara on May 17, 2010 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Daryl,

I know, it was the post immediately below yours that I was responding to; I caught the mistake and posted my apology right after I sent the original. Sorry again!

Posted by: nped on May 17, 2010 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting.
Any indication if this will be Retroactive?

Posted by: cwolf on May 17, 2010 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

"Is there any support for this accusation of insanity or is it reckless hyperbole?"

I haven't read the opinion, but:

Thomas, like Scalia, is an originalist, meaning that he believes the constitution should be interpreted according to the intent of the drafters. Since at the time the constitution was drafted it was not unusual to execute persons for theft then, presumably, Thomas would not think it a violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute a person for theft today.

Posted by: Jose Padilla on May 17, 2010 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

I have little sympathy for juvenile perpetrators of violent crimes or crimes using deadly weapons.

I don't in general disagree with the logic of the court's decision. But I do think that the reality that violent crimes can put you in jail till you are too old to care, do make a difference in the decision to use weapons or violence.

If you going to be on the streets again by the time you 25 where is the deterant?

Posted by: Marnie on May 17, 2010 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK


"If you going to be on the streets again by the time you 25 where is the deterant?"

That would be the teenage years you spent in prison being brutalised on a daily basis by scores of bastards, then coming out to find you can't get a job because of your record. Not exactly an attractive prospect, is it?

And I really can't see any correlation between mandatory lifetime sentences and a decline in the crime rate. America's for-money prison system does make a lot of green for the people running it, but that's about it for any kind of plus points.

Posted by: Tony J on May 17, 2010 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

"Is there any support for this accusation of insanity or is it reckless hyperbole?"

Yes there is. Justice Stevens properly cited the portions of Thomas' opinion he objected to.

On page 10 of his dissent, Thomas argues that "there is virtually no indication that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause originally was understood to require proportionality in sentencing." In support he writes "...the penal statute adopted by the First Congress demonstrates that proportionality in sentencing was not considered a constitutional command. See id., at 980-981 (noting that the statute prescribed capital punishment for offenses ranging from “ ‘run[ning] away with . . . goods or merchandise to the value of fifty dollars,’ ” to “murder on the high seas” ..."

Yep, he really wrote that. To argue that 8th Amendment law does not and has not developed over a couple of centuries means (at least as I read it) that hanging a 17 year old for stealing $50 is not cruel or unusual punishment -- then or now. It appears that Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor read it the same way.

Text of the decision is at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-7412.pdf.

Posted by: cm on May 17, 2010 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK


For once I can agree with the liberals on the court! This decision is a victory for everyone who understands child mental development and believes in the idea of justice.

Posted by: Michael on May 21, 2010 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

cm,

Thank you.
It does appear that the execution for a $50 theft would be the logical conclusion if neither "unusual" nor "cruel" punishment excludes outsized, disproportional sentences.

Perhaps Thomas is insisting on an amendment that specifically says as much. Is it judicial activism to interpret "cruel" punishment as depriving a family of a loved one for long periods of time absent a public necessity for safety?

He may think so. It wouldn't hurt for the Bill of Rights to be even more specific, but must we demand it for the majority's opinion to be valid? If lengthy prison terms are not a problem, why the insistance on a speedy trial?

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on June 2, 2010 at 8:07 AM | PERMALINK
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