Sunday, April 25, 2021

'Packed' Court Spurns Juvenile Offenders

Brett Jones was a 15-year-old boy with a troubled childhood and a possibly pregnant girlfriend when he killed his grandfather on August 9, 2004. Jones had come to live with his grandparents in northeastern Mississippi a few months earlier just after his abusive stepfather had kicked him out of his childhood Florida.

Jones’ grandfather provoked the fatal argument with his grandson after finding the boy with his girlfriend in his bedroom. Jones claimed self-defense in his later trial, but the jury convicted him of murder.

The judge in the case sentenced Jones to spend the rest of his life behind bars under the then-mandatory life-without-parole sentence for murder in Mississippi. Seven years later, however the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in a 5-4 decision known as Miller v. Alabama. Jones cited that decision when he got a resentencing hearing in 2015 before the same judge who had sentenced him 10 years earlier.

Predictably perhaps, Judge Thomas Gardner imposed the same sentence and again sentenced Jones to die behind bars even while claiming to be following the Supreme Court precedent

Jones, who has a good prison record after spending half of his life behind bars, managed to get the Supreme Court to consider his case during its current term. Jones’ lawyers argued simply that the Court’s earlier ruling required a sentencing judge to find a juvenile offender permanently incorrigible before imposing a life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence.

The Supreme Court that heard Jones’ case is much different from the Court that envisioned nine years ago that LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders should be rare and should be imposed only if the teenager’s crime reflected “irreparable corruption.”

Instead of enforcing its precedent on the incorrigible Mississippi judge, however, the Court reversed course last week [April 22] and found no need for judges to make specific findings before imposing a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile offender.

The Court’s 6-3 decision against Jones was the product of Court packing by a Republican president, Donald J. Trump, and a Republican-majority Senate. Three of the justices in the new majority had dissented from the earlier decision; and the three other votes came from Trump’s justices: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Those three justices would not be on the Court today but for a change in Senate rules allowing Supreme Court confirmations with fewer than sixty votes. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016, engineered the rules change in 2017 to thwart Democrats’ opposition to Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch to the seat earlier intended for Garland.

Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett all won confirmation by historically narrow margins, all but completely on the strength of Republican votes. Three Democrats voted with 51 Republicans to confirm Gorsuch; Kavanaugh’s 50-48 confirmation came with only one Democrat voting for him; and Barrett’s 52-48 confirmation came solely on the strength of Republican votes, making her the first justice since 1881 to win confirmation without a single vote from senators of the opposite party.

In an ironic coincidence, the writing of the Jones decision fell to Kavanaugh, who as a beer-guzzling, party-loving teenager had his own episodes of immaturity. Kavanaugh won confirmation partly on the strength of his plea that he be judged on his later career rather than his wild oats-sowing days in high school and college.

In writing the decision in Jones’ case, Kavanaugh insisted that he was faithfully following the Court’s precedent in Miller. But he softened the blow by noting that Jones has several state avenues for “sentencing relief” that will remain open to him for years to come.

In a lengthy dissent for three liberal justices, however, Justice Sonia Sotomayor scoffed at Kavanaugh’s claimed respect for precedent. “The Court is fooling no one,” she wrote. The decision, she said, amounted to “an abrupt break with precedent,” with none of the usual justifications cited for reversing prior rulings.

The same Republicans who so effectively packed the Court with ideological conservatives are now complaining that a Democratic bill to add four seats to the Court to correct the current imbalance would amount to Court packing. The GOP’s hypocrisy is so thick that it can be cut with a knife.

The prospects for such legislation in the evenly divided Senate are, at best, cloudy. But Democrats are correct in warning that the Trump-packed Court, with its lopsided 6-3 majority, represents a serious threat to democracy as Republican-controlled legislatures are considering various voter suppression measures and bills to put local election supervisors under control of partisan officeholders.

Admittedly, Chief Justice John Roberts has disappointed conservatives with some of his votes and with apparent foot-dragging on such conservative initiatives as expanding gun rights and limiting abortion rights.

But Roberts has been consistent in upholding Republican-backed measures to make voting more difficult and seems likely to lead his conservative colleagues in voting to uphold whatever legislation vote-suppressing Republicans may enact.

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