That’s the question the Supreme Court answered in the negative today, in Graham v. Florida. The Court’s opinion was by Justice Kennedy, whose vote usually controls on Eighth Amendment issues, and it was joined by the four liberal justices.
The case generated oodles and oodles of pages and a welter of separate opinions. Thankfully, the AP has a fairly clear and concise summary:
The Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers may not be locked up for life without chance of parole 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.
Florida: where it’s good to be an old person.
Interestingly enough, Chief Justice John Roberts — not known as a bleeding heart — agreed with the majority as to Terrance Graham specifically. Because he concurred in the judgment, the vote on the disposition of the case was actually 6-3.
The back-and-forth between the majority and the dissent gets quite heated at times. Justice Thomas wrote the main dissent, which Robert Barnes of the Washington Post described as “stinging.” But given the power that Justice Kennedy wields at One First Street, it’s generally unwise to attack him too harshly.
So the most snarky exchange did not involve Justice Kennedy, but took place between Justice Thomas and his soon-to-be-former colleague, Justice Stevens….
Over at Washington Briefs, Lawrence Hurley reports on the trading of benchslaps between Justices Stevens and Thomas:
[Justices Stevens and Thomas] went at it over the court’s decision to bar life without parole sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses (Graham v. Florida).
Thomas started it. In his dissenting opinion, he quoted Stevens saying “we learn, sometimes from our mistakes,” to which Thomas responded: “Perhaps one day the court will learn from this one.”
Not to be outdone, Stevens struck back with the observation that Thomas “would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old.” The court “wisely rejects” Thomas’ “static approach to the law,” the veteran added.
So who has the better of the argument? Discuss in the comments and vote in our poll. If you’d like to inform yourself even further before voting, read Lyle Denniston’s detailed analysis at SCOTUSblog. Or check out the extensive coverage of Graham by sentencing guru Douglas Berman, the law professor behind the invaluable Sentencing Law and Policy blog.
Graham v. Florida [U.S. Supreme Court via SCOTUSblog]
Stevens and Thomas Exchange Barbs In Juvenile Life Without Parole Case [Washington Briefs]
Analysis: A limited break for juveniles [SCOTUSblog]
Assessing Graham and its aftermath [Sentencing Law and Policy]
Supreme Court rules out some life sentences for juveniles [Washington Post]
Court Rules out Some Life Sentences for Juveniles [ABC News]