TOPICS > Politics

High Court Reaffirms Campaign Finance, Strikes Down Juvenile Life Sentences

June 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In addition to the judgment on Arizona's immigration laws, the Supreme Court ruled Monday on mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders and refused to reconsider a decision it had made in 2010 on corporate campaign finance rules.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court’s immigration ruling wasn’t the only decision issued today. The justices found that juveniles who commit murder cannot receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. And in a 5-4 decision, the same justices who supported the Citizens United campaign finance decision opted against revisiting it.

Well, Marcia Coyle joins us again to explain the rulings.

And hello again, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s start on the juvenile sentencing decision.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were just saying to me a minute ago, to understand this, you need to reflect on what the court did last year, just in the last session, on sentencing for juveniles.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s true, Judy.

Justice Kagan wrote today’s opinion. And she said that the court’s decision followed really two precedents of the court involving juveniles and sentencing. The first one actually was in 2005. And that’s when the court ruled that juveniles under the age of 18 could not be sentenced to the death — to the death.

The second one was just one term ago. And in that case, the court held that juveniles who committed non-homicide crimes could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole. So this is the next step, she said. And that involves juveniles who commit murders, homicides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this is a 5-4 decision. And what’s the essence of the majority saying here?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Justice Kagan explained those prior decisions, those two decisions, were really based on the fact, very essential, basically that youth matters when it comes to sentencing.

Those prior decisions pointed out the juveniles are less culpable, less responsible for their actions. They’re immature compared to adults. And judges need to consider those factors when they are being sentenced, and also the context of their homes matter as well, the environment they grew up in. A mandatory sentence of life without parole doesn’t allow a judge or a jury that kind of discretion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a very notable dissent from the chief justice.

MARCIA COYLE: Chief Justice Roberts did dissent.

And he pointed out two things that he thought was wrong. First, he said the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, he noted that it’s hard to say that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile murders are unusual, when you have 29 states imposing such sentences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When so many states are saying that this can be imposed.

MARCIA COYLE: Right. Exactly.

He also said the court generally under the Eighth Amendment looks to evolving standards of decency in society. And he said those evolving standards don’t always go in one direction, leniency. In fact, he said the modern trend has been for states to approve mandatory sentences such as this for juvenile murders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there was another dissent, is that right, from Justice Alito?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Alito read a summary of his dissent from the bench. And he basically accused the court of long ago abandoning the original understanding of the Eighth Amendment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Marcia, how large an effect is this going to have in — this is a very particular instance of juveniles who have been found guilty of murder.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, actually, since there are 29 states that — and the federal government — that do approve this type of sentence, there are an estimated 2,300 juveniles under these sentences who committed murder when under the age of 18.

These two cases that the court took actually involved 14-year-olds. And that was the question before the court. But the court today did expand the prohibition to those who are under 18 when they commit murder.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the other decision announced today had to do with campaign finance, the state of Montana arguing that it could put limits on campaign finance, exempting it from the Citizens United, the case of two years ago.

MARCIA COYLE: This was a fascinating case of pushback.

The state of Montana had a 100-year-old state law banning corporate expenditures in state elections. The Montana Supreme Court a year ago upheld the ban, saying that Citizens United really didn’t apply here because Montana has a unique history of corruption dating back to that.

And that’s why Montanans approved that law, when the copper barons ruled Montana and actually bought judges and legislators. The companies who had challenged the Montana law then turned to the Supreme Court and asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Montana Supreme Court. Montana came back and said, either affirm our Supreme Court or take the case and reconsider Citizens United.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it turns out that the majority, the same majority who voted for Citizens — in the majority for Citizens United came down exactly the same way today and said, no, you’re wrong.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. That’s right.

This was an unsigned opinion, so we don’t know who actually wrote it. But the majority said that, in Citizens United, the court made clear that political speech doesn’t lose its First Amendment protection if its source is a corporation. And nobody could seriously doubt that that applies to Montana.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then what did the minority, the four — again, we assume the four who…

MARCIA COYLE: Well, we do know who wrote the dissent.

Justice Breyer wrote the dissent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Right.

MARCIA COYLE: And he said that he felt that Citizens United didn’t preclude Montana from showing why the unique facts of its own history and current elections system could justify a ban on corporate spending in its elections.

But he said he saw it was clear that the five who made up the majority in Citizens United were not going to change their minds. It’s interesting to note that Justice Kagan joined the dissenters. We didn’t know what position she took as a justice, even though she had argued Citizens United on behalf of the government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There has been a lot of speculation about whether the justices who were in favor of the Citizens United decisions might have had second thoughts, but from looking at this, it appears they have not.


And Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg had earlier suggested that given all of the money that we’re seeing today flowing in to the current campaigns around the country, that the court might want to reconsider the proposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to corrupt elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia, tell us a little bit about the atmosphere in the courtroom, the Supreme Court today. This is the week so many have been waiting for. We are still awaiting — the country is still awaiting the justices’ ruling on the health care, the Affordable Care Act. And now we know what day that is likely to come.

MARCIA COYLE: We do, finally.


MARCIA COYLE: Well, we know that Thursday will be the last day of the term. We expect the court will issue the health care decision Thursday.

You never know for sure. Who knows? Something could hold it up. But we do really expect something on Thursday. Today, we didn’t know what decisions would be coming. We knew it was a decision day, as well as a day on which they issue orders saying what cases they may take next term, what cases they will not take.

So the courtroom once again was crowded with press. TV cameras were lined up like little soldiers at the foot of the plaza. Everybody was waiting. I expect we’re going to see a huge number of people on Thursday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do they take particular delight in torturing people who are waiting for these decisions?


MARCIA COYLE: Maybe the press.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Judy.