By Alexandr Satanovsky (posted by JK)
In last term’s Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court prohibited the mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile homicide offenses. That holding, however, did not include additional procedural or substantive requirements. It did not resolve, for example, whether a full-dress penalty hearing is required (like that for adults facing the death penalty), or whether a judge’s summary imposition of LWOP—without elaborate justification—would suffice.
What the Court did say, in dicta to be sure, is that juvenile LWOP sentences should be very rare.
On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a GVR in Mauricio v. California, vacating the judgment of California's Second District Court of Appeal for reconsideration in light of Miller. (The unpublished state court opinion is available here.)
Notably, Mauricio is not a mandatory LWOP case. Mauricio received a discretionary LWOP sentence, and claimed in state court that “the trial court erred in declining to exercise its discretion to sentence him to terms of 25 years to life, rather than LWOP.” (my emphasis). He argued that “the trial court, while understanding it had discretion, failed to properly balance all the relevant factors . . .”
The Court of Appeal disagreed and upheld the LWOP sentence. It noted that “the trial court looked at all relevant factors,” including Mauricio’s age, “his lack of a prior criminal record,” and that “he was not an actual shooter.”
(Mauricio also argued that the Eighth Amendment barred all juvenile LWOP. That claim was rejected by the Court of Appeal, and nothing in Miller undermined that resolution.)
So, since Mauricio was not a mandatory JLWOP case, why the GVR? And what is the state court to do in light of Miller? The GVR does not compel the state court to reach a different result. However, it’s notable because it suggests that at least five Justices are inviting lower courts to tinker with the notion that Miller has a substantive bite, beyond its otherwise mechanical holding.
The only conceivable issue that the state court may revisit is whether the trial court abused its discretion in issuing the LWOP sentence. The state court could hold that discretionary juvenile LWOP determinations must be supported by additional process, akin to a capital penalty phase, or at least by a more thorough explanation for rejecting the non-LWOP option. Or it could use Miller as a springboard for barring all juvenile LWOP where the youth had a limited role in the homicide (cf. Enmund / Tison), as that seems to be the factual scenario in Mauricio.
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Okay, so what may this front-end GVR say to habeas habeas practitioners?
One point concerns the interaction between Miller and the Teague bar. Is the Miller rule simply a mechanical rule of procedure, akin to Ring’s requirement that a jury must try a capital penalty phase, such that will render it inapplicable to cases that are final. (See Schriro v. Summerlin (2004)). Or is it more of a substantive bar on the imposition of a sentence, like Roper's prohibition on juvenile death sentences. For a good discussion on Miller’s retroactivity, see this post on the Juvenile Justice Blog.
The GVR strongly suggests that Miller may in fact be more than a procedural rule (“LWOP cannot be mandatory”), but rather a substantive restriction (“even discretionary LWOP may be unconstitutional for some juvenile homicides”). If that’s the case, Miller seems a lot more like Roper than Ring for purposes of retroactivity. And that’s a huge deal for the many juvenile offenders serving LWOP sentences pursuant to mandatory schemes, whose cases were final before Miller.
Second, the GVR is noteworthy because it seems to affirm the Supreme Court’s promise to GVR front-end cases, as suggested explicitly in last term’s Greene v. Fisher. In Greene, the petitioner’s last reasoned state court decision occurred before Gray v. Maryland (1998) (limiting admissibility of redacted co-defendant confessions), but the state conviction did not become “final” until after Gray. The Supreme Court held that, for purposes of 2254(d)(1), Gray cannot be clearly established law because it was issued after the state court decision. To reconcile the evident tension with Teague’s retroactivity framework, the Court faulted the petitioner for not seeking a GVR in light of Gray. The GVR in Mauricio suggests that the Court is vigilant in kicking back front-end cases that may be even slightly affected by a new rule.