Court Battles

Sotomayor blasts Kavanaugh’s decision on juvenile life sentences

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a blistering dissent Thursday hammered a 6-3 decision penned by Justice Brett Kavanaugh that rejected certain limits on juvenile life sentences.

Joined by her two fellow liberal justices, Sotomayor accused the conservative majority of abandoning past rulings while pretending to respect them — and even used one of Kavanaugh’s previous opinions against him as a cudgel. 

“Such an abrupt break from precedent demands ‘special justification,’ ” Sotomayor wrote, quoting a decision Kavanaugh wrote last term, adding: “The Court offers none.”

Ruling along ideological lines, the court on Thursday rejected a challenge to life sentences without parole issued to juveniles, affirming a Mississippi court’s sentence of Brett Jones, who at age 15 murdered his grandfather.

Jones’s life sentence without parole was handed down even though there was never a separate factual finding that he was incapable of rehabilitation, or what the law refers to as “permanently incorrigible.”

Kavanaugh wrote that this specific determination is not required because Supreme Court precedent mandates only that “a sentencer consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence.”

At its heart, the case was about whether such sentences without a determination of incorrigibility violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But to reach the ruling, the court had to navigate a thicket of recent rulings on juvenile sentencing.

The Supreme Court generally aims to abide by its prior rulings in accordance with the principle of stare decisis, or respect for precedent.

Kavanaugh, in his majority opinion, denied that the court had departed from past rulings — namely, the court’s 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana and 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama.

“The Court’s decision today carefully follows both Miller and Montgomery,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The dissent nonetheless claims that we are somehow implicitly overruling those decisions.” 

But Sotomayor rebuffed Kavanaugh’s assertion in her dissent, which was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

“The Court is fooling no one,” she wrote. “Because I cannot countenance the Court’s abandonment of Miller and Montgomery, I dissent.”

Citing the court’s 2016 decision in Montgomery, Sotomayor said the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment requires that most juvenile offenders “be given this small ‘hope for some years of life outside prison walls.'”

“Jones and other juvenile offenders like him seek only the possibility of parole,” she wrote. “Not the certainty of release, but the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance.”

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Elena Kagan Juvenile crimes Sonia Sotomayor Sonya Sotomayor Stephen Breyer

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