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Keeping up with rulings from the United States Supreme Court is just as important to us as blogging about relevant practitioner issues. Please use this page as a way to stay updated on the changes in the Criminal Law area as we work to research, analyze, predict, and summarize the decisions of the Supreme Court. 

Recent Supreme Court Cases

No. 14-280

Argued October 13, 2015


Facts:  In November 1963, 17-year-old Henry Montgomery was arrested and convicted of murdering Sheriff Deputy Charles Hurt. Montgomery was originally sentenced to death, a decision that the Louisiana Supreme Court ultimately overturned. Instead, Montgomery was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP), a sentence that was automatically determined after he was found guilty. However, this contradicts the Miller Court’s holding stating, “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’” Montgomery proceeded to file a pro se motion in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Court to correct his sentence. The Supreme Court granted certiorari. 


Issue(s): In 2012, the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama held that the Eighth Amendment forbids juvenile homicide offenders from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP).  However, Miller left unclear whether this prohibition applied retroactively to juvenile homicide offenders sentenced to LWOP before 2012.  The Supreme Court is tasked with determining whether Miller creates a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to juveniles sentenced to LWOP and procedurally, whether or not the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the Supreme Court of Louisiana’s ruling. The Supreme Court asked both parties and a court appointed Amicus to argue over whether the Court had jurisdiction since the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to apply Miller retroactively.


Arguments: The petitioner argued that Miller creates a substantive right that retroactively prohibits a state from sentencing juveniles to LWOP because “Miller [places] juveniles beyond the reach of criminal statutes that would otherwise impose a mandatory sentence of [LWOP].”  The petitioner argued “a rule is substantive if it ‘prohibits a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.’”  When determining a juvenile sentence, Miller requires courts to take into account the fact that juveniles are a different class of people.  Miller does not prohibit juveniles from spending their lives in prison; it just identifies “a class of persons for whom the state must allow consideration of additional elements before punishment can be imposed.”


When the court sentenced Montgomery, the best option available to him was LWOP.  Yet, Montgomery is now in prison with a sentence that may no longer be legal.  The Court ruled in Teague “if one petitioner gets the benefit of a new [substantive] rule, then the rule should apply retroactively to others similarly situated as another approach would be inequitable.”  The Court in Jackson held that the petitioner, a fourteen-year-old homicide offender should be treated the same as the petitioner in Miller, even though the case was on collateral review.  For the purposes of equal justice, Miller should be applied retroactively. 


Respondents argued that the State of Louisiana believes that Miller is a procedural rule. Procedural rules do not substantially affect the rights of individuals. Instead, procedural rules impact the process and organization of the law. The respondent argues that because Miller does not prohibit LWOP to juveniles it does not change the sentencing process; therefore, Miller did not create a substantive rule. According to cases from the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits, Miller did not prohibit a category of punishment as argued by the petitioner. Consequently, the exception in Teague is not applicable in Montgomery. The holding in Jackson does not apply in Montgomery because the Court did not address Teague, meaning the question of whether Miller could be used retroactively was not addressed.


On Jurisdiction: Aside from the retroactivity of Miller, the Court was concerned with whether it had jurisdiction to hear the case.  The petitioner argued that there was jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1257(a) because the Supreme Court of Louisiana issued a final judgment affecting a Constitutional right.  Since Miller’s holding falls into one of Teague’s retroactivity exception, lower courts are constitutionally bound to apply Miller.  However, respondents argued that Miller created no substantive right, instead, Miller merely created a procedural framework that states are not bound to follow.  Thus, Louisiana’s refusal to apply Miller retroactively was permissible.  Additionally, the court appointed Amicus argued that if supporters of the petitioner wanted the Supreme Court to decide the retroactivity issue of Miller it could do so by filling a test habeas petition in federal court.


Practitioners: If the petitioner succeeds in extending Miller retroactively, then a whole new class of juvenile defendants will motion to have their sentences reviewed.  However, if the Court finds lack of jurisdiction in Montgomery, then supporters will need to file or find a federal juvenile habeas case to extend Miller retroactively. 


Written By: Julia Eaton, Junior Staffer

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