Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280, ___ U.S. ___, (Jan. 25, 2016).

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is another case in a series of decisions involving the sentencing of offenders who were juveniles when their crimes were committed. In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), the Court held that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole absent consideration of the juvenile’s special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing. In the wake of Miller, the question has arisen whether its holding is retroactive to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were final when Miller was decided. Courts have reached different conclusions on this point. [Citations omitted.] Certiorari was granted in this case to resolve the question.

….

After this Court issued its decision in Miller, Montgomery sought collateral review of his mandatory life-without-parole sentence [for a murder he committed in 1963 at age 17]. In Louisiana there are two principal mechanisms for collateral challenge to the lawfulness of imprisonment. … The first procedure permits a prisoner to file an application for postconviction relief on one or more of seven grounds set forth in the statute. [Louisiana statutory citations omitted throughout.] ….

Th[e] second mechanism allows a prisoner to bring a collateral attack on his or her sentence by filing a motion to correct an illegal sentence. Montgomery invoked this procedure ….

The state statute provides that “[a]n illegal sentence may be corrected at any time by the court that imposed the sentence.” [Citation omitted.] An illegal sentence “is primarily restricted to those instances in which the term of the prisoner’s sentence is not authorized by the statute or statutes which govern the penalty” for the crime of conviction. [Citations omitted.]

….

The trial court denied Montgomery’s motion on the ground that Miller is not retroactive on collateral review. Montgomery then filed an application for a supervisory writ. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied the application. …

….

The parties agree that the Court has jurisdiction to decide this case. To ensure this conclusion is correct, the Court appointed Richard D. Bernstein as amicus curiae to brief and argue the position that the Court lacks jurisdiction. He has ably discharged his assigned responsibilities.

Amicus argues that … [State-law] collateral review proceedings … are … under the State’s plenary control … to define applicable principles of retroactivity. Under this view, the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision does not implicate a federal right; it only determines the scope of relief available in a particular type of state proceeding—a question of state law beyond this Court’s power to review.

If, however, the Constitution establishes a rule and requires that the rule have retroactive application, then a state court’s refusal to give the rule retroactive effect is reviewable by this Court. Cf. Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U. S. 314, 328 (1987) (holding that on direct review, a new constitutional rule must be applied retroactively “to all cases, state or federal”). States may not disregard a controlling, constitutional command in their own courts. [Citation omitted.] Amicus’ argument therefore hinges on the premise that this Court’s retroactivity precedents are not a constitutional mandate.

[Under] Justice O’Connor’s plurality opinion in Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288 (1989), * * * requires the retroactive application of new substantive and watershed procedural rules in federal habeas proceedings. Amicus, however, contends that Teague was an interpretation of the federal habeas statute, not a constitutional command; and so, the argument proceeds, Teague’s retroactivity holding simply has no application in a State’s own collateral review proceedings.

….

… The Court now holds that when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule. Teague’s conclusion establishing the retroactivity of new substantive rules is best understood as resting upon constitutional premises. That constitutional command is, like all federal law, binding on state courts. This holding is limited to Teague’s first exception for substantive rules; the constitutional status of Teague’s exception for watershed rules of procedure need not be addressed here.

….

This leads to the question whether Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders indeed did announce a new substantive rule that, under the Constitution, must be retroactive.

….

Miller … did more than require a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole; it established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of “the distinctive attributes of youth.” [Citation omitted.] Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity.’” [Citation omitted.] Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but “‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’” [citation omitted], it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for “a class of defendants because of their status”—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. [Citation omitted.] As a result, Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law. Like other substantive rules, Miller is retroactive because it “‘necessarily carr[ies] a significant risk that a defendant’”—here, the vast majority of juvenile offenders— “‘faces a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.’” [Citation omitted.]

….

… When a new substantive rule of constitutional law is established, this Court is careful to limit the scope of any attendant procedural requirement to avoid intruding more than necessary upon the States’ sovereign administration of their criminal justice systems. See Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 416–417 (1986) (“[W]e leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences”). Fidelity to this important principle of federalism, however, should not be construed to demean the substantive character of the federal right at issue. That Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole. To the contrary, Miller established that this punishment is disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.

….

Giving Miller retroactive effect, moreover, does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convic­tions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole. A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them. [Citation omitted.] Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured—will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

*     *     *

….

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

….

Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas and Justice Alito join, dissenting.

The Court has no jurisdiction to decide this case, and the decision it arrives at is wrong. I respectfully dissent.

I. Jurisdiction

… [A] majority of this Court, eager to reach the merits of this case, resolves the question of our jurisdiction by deciding that the Constitution requires state postconviction courts to adopt Teague’s exception for so-called “substantive” new rules and to provide state-law remedies for the violations of those rules to prisoners whose sentences long ago became final. This conscription into federal service of state postconviction courts is nothing short of astonishing.

….

Neither Teague nor its exceptions are constitutionally compelled. Unlike today’s majority, the Teague-era Court understood that cases on collateral review are fundamentally different from those pending on direct review because of “considerations of finality in the judicial process.” Shea v. Louisiana, 470 U. S. 51, 59–60 (1985). That line of finality demarcating the constitutionally required rule in Griffith [v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314 (1987)] from the habeas rule in Teague supplies the answer to the not-so-difficult question whether a state postconviction court must remedy the violation of a new substantive rule: No. A state court need only apply the law as it existed at the time a defendant’s conviction and sentence became final. See Griffith, supra, at 322. And once final, “a new rule cannot reopen a door already closed.” [Citation omitted.] Any relief a prisoner might receive in a state court after finality is a matter of grace, not constitutional prescription.

….

… [T]he Supremacy Clause cannot possibly answer the question before us here. It only elicits another question: What federal law is supreme? Old or new? The majority’s champion, Justice Harlan, said the old rules apply for federal habeas review of a state-court conviction …. How can it possibly be, then, that the Constitution requires a state court’s review of its own convictions to be governed by “new rules” rather than (what suffices when federal courts review state courts) “old rules”?

….

II. The Retroactivity of Miller

Having created jurisdiction by ripping Teague’s first exception from its moorings, converting an equitable rule governing federal habeas relief to a constitutional command governing state courts as well, the majority proceeds to the merits. And here it confronts a second obstacle to its desired outcome. … No problem. Having distorted Teague, the majority simply proceeds to rewrite Miller.

The majority asserts that Miller “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, […] all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility. For that reason, Miller is no less substantive than are Roper and Graham.” Ante, at 17–18. The problem is * * * Miller’s unambiguous statement that “[o]ur decision does not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders” and “mandates only that a sentencer follow a certain process . . . before imposing a particular penalty.” 567 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 20). It is plain as day that the majority is not applying Miller, but rewriting it. [Footnote omitted.]

And the rewriting has consequences beyond merely making Miller’s procedural guarantee retroactive. If, indeed, a State is categorically prohibited from imposing life without parole on juvenile offenders whose crimes do not “reflect permanent incorrigibility,” then even when the procedures that Miller demands are provided the constitutional requirement is not necessarily satisfied. It remains available for the defendant sentenced to life without parole to argue that his crimes did not in fact “reflect permanent incorrigibility.” …

How wonderful. Federal and (like it or not) state judges are henceforth to resolve the knotty “legal” question: whether a 17-year-old who murdered an innocent sheriff’s deputy half a century ago was at the time of his trial “incorrigible.” Under Miller, bear in mind, the inquiry is whether the inmate was seen to be incorrigible when he was sentenced—not whether he has proven corrigible and so can safely be paroled today. What silliness. …

But have no fear. The majority does not seriously expect state and federal collateral-review tribunals to engage in this silliness, probing the evidence of “incorrigibility” that existed decades ago when defendants were sentenced. … This whole exercise, this whole distortion of Miller, is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders. … [I]n Godfather fashion, the majority makes state legislatures an offer they can’t refuse: Avoid all the utterly impossible nonsense we have prescribed by simply “permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole.” Ante, at 21. Mission accomplished.

….

Justice Thomas, dissenting.

I join Justice Scalia’s dissent. I write separately to explain why the Court’s resolution of the jurisdictional question, ante, at 5–14, lacks any foundation in the Constitution’s text or our historical traditions. … Because our Constitution and traditions embrace no such right, I respectfully dissent.

….

Even if due process required courts to anticipate this Court’s new substantive rules, it would not compel courts to revisit settled convictions or sentences on collateral review. We have never understood due process to require further proceedings once a trial ends. …

….

Not only does the Court’s novel constitutional right lack any constitutional foundation; the reasoning the Court uses to construct this right lacks any logical stopping point. If, as the Court supposes, the Constitution bars courts from insisting that prisoners remain in prison when their convictions or sentences are later deemed unconstitutional, why can courts let stand a judgment that wrongly decided any constitutional question?

….

There is one silver lining to today’s ruling: States still have a way to mitigate its impact on their court systems. As the Court explains, States must enforce a constitutional right to remedies on collateral review only if such proceedings are “open to a claim controlled by federal law.” …

….

States therefore have a modest path to lessen the burdens that today’s decision will inflict on their courts. States can stop entertaining claims alleging that this Court’s Eighth Amendment decisions invalidated a sentence, and leave federal habeas courts to shoulder the burden of adjudicating such claims in the first instance. Whatever the desirability of that choice, it is one the Constitution allows States to make.

Read Full Opinion