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In Arizona, Life Sentences for Juveniles Test Supreme Court Precedents

In Arizona, Life Sentences for Juveniles Test Supreme Court Precedents

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rebuked the Arizona Supreme Court for defying its precedents in capital cases.

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.”

Lawyers for Mr. Bassett asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, saying that his case could determine the fates of more than two dozen other juvenile offenders. The case, they wrote, “presents exceptionally significant questions about gamesmanship and the supremacy of federal law.”

The justices are likely to act in the coming weeks.

In a striking brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, Bassett v. Arizona, No. 23-830, Kristin K. Mayes, Arizona’s attorney general, chose not to defend the state Supreme Court’s reasoning.

“Parole eligibility is constitutionally required,” Ms. Mayes wrote. “This court’s precedents have already firmly established this fact, and Arizona does not disagree.”

She instead defended the result in the case on a novel ground, one on which the Arizona Supreme Court had not relied. It is a little hard to follow.

When Mr. Bassett was sentenced, she wrote, there was “a widespread mistaken belief among Arizona judges and attorneys” that one provision of the challenged state law allowed sentences of life with the possibility of parole. She added that “the mistaken belief appears to have been universal.”

The idea seems to be that judges who thought they were choosing among sentences that included the possibility of parole but chose a harsher alternative had complied with Miller even though the law had not actually given them a choice.

“According to Bassett, the statutorily available options at the time of sentencing are the beginning and end of the analysis,” Ms. Mayes wrote. “But while this may typically be the case, it cannot be that simple in the unusual circumstance where sentencing judges misunderstand the law.”

There are problems with this argument. First, Mr. Bassett’s lawyers told the justices, the idea that Arizona judges were all ignorant of the law is “provably false.” They cited a series of decisions demonstrating this.

Second, Mr. Bassett’s lawyers wrote, “condoning the state’s theory would permit states to violate the federal Constitution based on speculation that state courts were ignorant of their own state law.”

A good reason to think that the Arizona law is at odds with the Miller decision is that the decision said it was, listing it as one of 29 state laws “mandating life without parole for children.”

Since then, other states have taken steps to comply with the Constitution, the law professors wrote in their supporting brief. But Arizona remains, they said, “an extreme outlier.”

They urged the justices to intervene.

“As it has previously done when Arizona refused to abide by binding precedent,” the professors wrote, “the court should tell Arizona that enough is enough.”

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