The Supreme Court heard a case today that could retroactively require parole hearings for 1,500 inmates sentenced as minors to life in prison without the chance of parole.
The justices debated Montgomery v. Louisiana, the case of Henry Montgomery, who has been in a Louisiana prison since 1963, when he shot a sheriff's deputy at the age of 17. Montgomery, now 69 years old, was first sentenced to death, but then had that conviction overturned and was given life in prison without the chance of parole.
His case is based on the Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, in which the justices ruled that defendants who were under 18 when they committed their crime could not be sentenced automatically to life without the possibility of parole. Judges considering such sentences must take into account "the mitigating qualities of youth," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 5-4 ruling. But the justices didn't apply the decision retroactively to past convicts like Montgomery.
Now Montgomery is arguing that Louisiana is required to retroactively apply the Miller decision to him. That doesn't mean he'd be given parole, just a new sentencing hearing.
There are about 1,500 people around the country who would be eligible for a new hearing if Miller was considered retroactively. Some states have already decided to apply it retroactively, but Louisiana is not one of them.
"The question of retroactivity is one of fundamental fairness and logic," Marsha Levick, one of Montgomery's lawyers, said in an email. "Justice should not depend on an arbitrary date on the calendar."
A criminal rule like Miller is required to be applied retroactively only if it is a "substantive" rule that removes the option for a certain punishment or a "watershed" rule that affects the "fundamental fairness" of a criminal proceeding, according to an analysis by SCOTUSblog's Amy Howe. Montgomery argues that the decision was both watershed and substantive, while Louisiana argues it was a more minor change in procedure.
But at the 75-minute oral arguments this morning, there was a lot of technical discussion about whether the Supreme Court even had the jurisdiction to rules, according to a transcript posted by the Court. The justices wondered aloud if Louisiana was following state law or federal law, and could end up dismissing the case regardless of its merit.
Justice Stephen Breyer at one point invoked the Salem witch trials to argue that punishments that were not unconstitutional at one time could be revisited later. "There were some people in Salem who were imprisoned for being a witch. And lo and behold in 1820, it was held by this Court that that violated the Constitution," Breyer said.
The U.S. solicitor general's office has filed a petition supporting Montgomery's position, and one of the office's lawyers argued in front of the Court in Montgomery's favor. Becky Wilson, the daughter of Montgomery's victim, filed a motion against his suit, and has said that while she forgives him, she doesn't want him to go free.
A decision could come down as early as December, although it may take several more months.
Levick, Montgomery's lawyer, said her client was honored to have his case heard before the highest court in the land. "He’s read every brief related to his case and is hopeful, not just for himself but for the many others this could help," she said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.