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Supreme Court Places Limits on Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

May 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court has struck down laws in multiple states that allow juveniles to be sentenced to life terms with no chance of parole for crimes that do not involve murder. Ray Suarez talks to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal about that and other rulings issued Monday.

GWEN IFILL: The Supreme Court handed down three decisions today.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: The justices ruled on major cases involving the sentencing of juveniles and sexually dangerous offenders. Plus, they looked at the boundaries of an international child custody treaty.

And, as always, Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” was at the court, and is now here to walk us through today’s decision.

Marcia, how did the court break down when ruling on life-without-parole sentences for people who committed the crimes as minors, short of homicide?

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: The court ruled 6-3 that that sentence violates the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The three dissenters were Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito.

RAY SUAREZ: Answering very broadly the question, can you ever impose a life sentence without parole for crimes short of murders on a minor, or ruling very narrowly in the case of this one man, Terrance Graham?

MARCIA COYLE: It was not a narrow decision, Ray. The court announced the categorical rule that this sentence violates the Constitution.

But Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said, this doesn’t mean that a juvenile may never spend life behind bars. He said that the decision means that a state must give a reasonable opportunity, some meaningful opportunity, to the juvenile to show that the juvenile has matured and has been rehabilitated.

He said that the Constitution simply says the courts can — or — and the states cannot make the decision at the outset. There has to be some opportunity while in prison to show rehabilitation.

RAY SUAREZ: And, in the case of murder, life without parole stands unchanged?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, at the same time, as it was blocking such sentences with this ruling, the court was also dismissing an appeal from a man with a similar case, now an adult, but he was serving life without parole for a rape committed when he was 13. It seems sort of contradictory.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, it really isn’t.

Joe Sullivan’s case was dismissed today. And the problem with Joe Sullivan’s case was a procedural problem that prevented the court from getting to the merit. But, conceivably, Joe Sullivan could try to take advantage now of the ruling in Terrance Graham’s case.

RAY SUAREZ: So, bring it back to a lower court, and, in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling today, say, hey, this means I should be able to be released?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. It would probably be a resentencing hearing, in which the juveniles — they are no longer juveniles — would have to show that they have been rehabilitated and matured.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s move to the case giving states more power in retaining in prison convicted sex offenders. What was the ruling today?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, this was a 7-2 decision. And the court, in an opinion again by Justice Kennedy, said that Congress had the authority to enact this law.

And it was an examination of a rare clause in the Constitution, the necessary and proper clause, which authorizes Congress to enact laws to help it enforce, implement powers that are specifically named in the Constitution. And the court upheld this law.

It was the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. The challenge was brought by five federal prisoners. And they challenged it on various constitutional grounds. The — Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion, he said that — oh, I’m sorry — I think Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion. Excuse me.

Justice Breyer said in his opinion that this law was actually a reasonable and modest addition to the mental health, prison-related statutes that have been on the books for decades. And it was necessary and proper to the implementation of those laws that the federal government have the authority to confine these men beyond their prison sentences.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you serve your full-time that are you given for the commission of a crime after you are found guilty, and now a state can legitimately continue to hold you if they, what, determine that you remain a danger to the community?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, states have that power now, Ray, even before the Supreme Court decision. This was a federal case, federal law.

So, now the federal government clearly has the authority to do that, as a result of the opinion today.

RAY SUAREZ: So, 7-2, that means some people who don’t normally vote with each other must have voted together today?

MARCIA COYLE: It does. The only dissenters were Justices Thomas and Scalia. And Justice Thomas, in his dissent, said that he didn’t see any specific power in the Constitution that delegated the authority to Congress to enact this law.

He said, sexual abuse is a despicable act, but he said the Constitution doesn’t protect society from every bad act.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the ruling require that there be some uniformity of assessment, so that, once you serve your time, there has to be a way they figure out whether you are still dangerous, or it’s just one person’s decision?

MARCIA COYLE: No, there is a civil commitment procedure that takes place in federal court. And the government has to meet certain requirements under the law in order to confine these inmates beyond their sentences.

RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, a ruling involving international custody disputes, what did the justices rule in this case?

MARCIA COYLE: This was another Justice Kennedy opinion, this today. This case involved an American woman who was married to a British man. And they were living in Chile with their son when they had some marital problems. They separated. The mother did receive almost full custody of the child. The husband received visitation rights.

But he also got, under Chilean law, something called a ne exeat order, which gave him the right to refuse or consent to the child’s removal from the country. The mother eventually returned to the United States with the child. The father found them in Texas and moved to enforce that ne exeat clause.

So, the Supreme Court had to decide under this international child abduction treaty whether that clause gave the father a right of custody or whether it was just a right of access. And it was — the difference was important, because, if it was a right of custody, the father could move, under the treaty, to have the child returned to Chile.

Today, Justice Kennedy, looking at the text of the treaty, looking at other courts, foreign courts, how they had interpreted it, and also looking at the U.S. State Department’s interpretation, said that it was a right of custody. So, the father can now petition our courts to return the child to Chile.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks for being here.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.