Bench Memos

Today’s Eighth Amendment Ruling Against Mandatory Life Without Parole

Extending its ever-evolving, and ever less coherent, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the Supreme Court ruled today, by a 5-4 vote in Miller v. Alabama, that it is unconstitutional to establish a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for any category of murder committed by a person younger than 18 (otherwise known, if only in this context, as a “juvenile”). The Court’s ruling—majority opinion by Justice Kagan, joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor—invalidated contrary aspects of sentencing regimes established by 28 States and the federal government.

The majority declined to address the argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on the discretionary imposition on a juvenile of life without parole, but it volunteered that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty” (the death penalty already having been categorically deemed off limits) “will be uncommon.”

In his lead dissent (joined by Scalia, Thomas, and Alito), the Chief Justice objected that the Court “invokes [the Eighth] Amendment to ban a punishment that the Court itself does not characterize as unusual, and that could not plausibly be described as such.” Justices Thomas and Alito added their own dissents, each also joined by Scalia.


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