Miller v. Alabama: Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Homicide Offenders as Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Miller v. Alabama is an interesting case decided by the Supreme Court last June which has not received that much attention.  In Miller, the Supreme Court held that the Eight Amendment forbids as cruel and unusual punishment a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

In this post, I will discuss some aspects of the majority’s opinion.  In my next post, I will address Justice Thomas’s originalist dissent.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Kagan for the four liberals and Justice Kennedy, the Court bases its holding on two lines of cases.  As the syllabus for the decision states:

Two strands of precedent reflecting the concern with proportionate punishment come together here.  The first has adopted categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty.  See, e.g., Kennedy  v.  Louisiana.  Several cases in this group have specially focused on juvenile  offenders, because of their lesser culpability.  Thus, Roper v. Simmons held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children, and Graham v. Florida, concluded that the Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense.  Graham further likened life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty, thereby evoking a second line of cases.  In those decisions, this Court has required sentencing authorities to consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing him to death.  See, e.g., Woodson  v.  North Carolina.  Here, the confluence of these two lines of precedent leads to the conclusion that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment.

Signficantly, neither of these two lines of cases actually supports the decision here.  Instead, the Court kind of adds the two together – juvenile offender plus mandatory  sentence – to justify the holding of cruel and unusual.  The opinion reads as a well crafted exercise of common law decisionmaking.  In fact, it reminded me of a Justice Brennan opinion – a first rate use of the materials to justify a liberal result that the precedents did not really support but that the opinion persuasively claimed grew out of the prior cases.

But as is often the case with a Brennan opinion, when one looks at the opinion more deeply, one realizes that, despite its apparent persuasiveness, it engages in some highly contestable moves.  First, although the Court is relying on precedents, it is also dispensing with other precedents.  In Harmelin v. Michigan. the Supreme Court had declined to extend the Court’s individual sentencing requirements to noncapital cases “because of the qualitative differences between death and all other penalties.”  Here, though, the Court chose to extend those sentencing requirements on the grounds that Harmelin had not involved minors.  Second, in prior cases, the Court had asked whether legislative enactments and actual sentencing practices showed a national consensus against a sentence for a particular class of offenders.  This inquiry connected the Court’s analysis with the term “unusual” in the Eighth Amendment.  But here the Court puts that inquiry to the side as well.

The basic message here is that the common law method can often be used by a court to reach pretty much any result that it seeks.  The majority clearly believed that a mandatory life sentence without parole for a juvenile was morally problematic and therefore crafted an opinion dispensing with such punishments.  And as the concurrence by Justice Breyer and the dissent by Justice Thomas showed, this is unlikely to be the end of the Court’s endeavors in this area.

In my next post, I will discuss Justice Thomas originalist analysis and how he would seek to limit the two lines of cases that the majority extended in Miller.