Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Arizona ignores SCOTUS on JLWOP

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rebuked the Arizona Supreme Court for defying its precedents in capital cases, reported The New York Times.

A third ruling from the state court last year seemed to run headlong into another Supreme Court precedent. It said juvenile offenders could be sentenced to die in prison under a state law that did not allow for the possibility of parole.

That decision gave rise to a kind of judicial déjà vu, 15 law professors told the justices in a recent supporting brief.

“Once again, individuals in Arizona are forced to come to this court to vindicate firmly established constitutional rights, all because Arizona refuses to follow precedent,” the professors wrote, urging the court to hear a juvenile offender’s appeal. “This time, absent intervention, individuals sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles will continue serving unconstitutional sentences.”

In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected such mandatory sentences for youths who committed murders before they turned 18. To be constitutional, the court said, state laws must at least allow judges the option of sentencing juvenile offenders to life with the possibility of parole.

As recently as 2021, even after the Supreme Court shifted to the right, it reaffirmed the core principle that “an individual who commits a homicide when he or she is under 18 may be sentenced to life without parole, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment.”

The new case involves Lonnie Bassett, who was convicted of two murders committed when he was 16. When he was sentenced in 2006, Arizona law did not give the judge the option of sentencing him to anything but life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a unanimous opinion last year, the Arizona Supreme Court did not dispute that. But it said an idiosyncratic feature of the state law, allowing judges to choose between “natural life” without the possibility of release in any fashion and life without parole but with the theoretical possibility of clemency from the governor, rendered it constitutional.

Rejecting the usual understanding of the governing precedent, the court said, “Miller and its progeny do not specifically require the availability of parole when sentencing a juvenile offender.”

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