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Supreme Court rules against juvenile sentenced to life without parole

Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.RUTH FREMSON/NYT

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a recent trend of leniency for minors convicted of serious crimes and said judges need not specifically find “permanent incorrigibility” before sentencing juvenile murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Former president Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees were key to the 6-3 ruling, which was written by one of them, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The “argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the court’s precedents,” Kavanaugh wrote. The court upheld the life without parole sentence a Mississippi court imposed on a 15-year-old who stabbed his grandfather to death in a dispute over the boy’s girlfriend.

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor replied in a biting dissent that a finding that a youth was incapable of redemption was the very point of the court’s previous rulings, and that Thursday’s decision undermines those precedents without acknowledging the change.

“Such an abrupt break from precedent demands ‘special justification,’ ” wrote Sotomayor, quoting a Kavanaugh opinion from last term. Because the majority did not provide one, she wrote, “The court is fooling no one.”

The case could be representative of changes the court’s fortified conservative majority will make, as Trump’s nominees have filled seats once held by a moderate and a liberal justice.

Kavanaugh in 2018 replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had played a key role in the rulings on juvenile offenders. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the majority in all of the decisions that granted more leniency, and her spot on the court has been filled by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

In those previous decisions, the court’s movement has been in one direction when the court contemplates how the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment applies to juveniles.

In 2005, the court ended capital punishment for those whose crimes were committed before age 18. In 2010, it barred life without parole in non-homicide crimes.

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In 2012, it forbade mandatory life without parole sentences even for murder, in Miller v. Alabama. And four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court said those sentenced under the old rules could challenge their permanent imprisonment.

That decision said life without parole should be reserved for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

That meant Brett Jones, the Mississippi boy at the center of the case, deserved a new sentencing hearing for the 2004 murder of his grandfather. But Kavanaugh said it was enough that the state’s allowance of life without parole for a juvenile was discretionary, and that the judge took Jones’s youth into consideration.

In Miller, Kavanaugh wrote, “the court mandated ‘only that a sentencer follow a certain process -- considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics -- before imposing’ a life-without-parole sentence.”

And in Montgomery, “the court flatly stated that ‘Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement’ and added that ‘a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required,’ " Kavanaugh wrote.

Kavanaugh downplayed Sotomayor’s fiery dissent as “simply . . . a good-faith disagreement” over “how to interpret relevant precedents.”

“The dissent thinks that we are unduly narrowing Miller and Montgomery,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And we, by contrast, think that the dissent would unduly broaden those decisions.”

Besides Barrett, Kavanaugh was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., and Neil Gorsuch.

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Sotomayor was not appeased. She said the majority decision ignores the key holding of the cases — that life without parole should be only for the rare juvenile found to be beyond redemption — and violates stare decisis, the court’s general rule of upholding precedent.

“The court simply rewrites Miller and Montgomery to say what the court now wishes they had said, and then denies that it has done any such thing,” wrote Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who wrote the court’s decision in Miller.

“How low this court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk,” Sotomayor wrote.