The Many Meanings of Montgomery v. Louisiana: How the Supreme Court Redefined Retroactivity and Miller v. Alabama
Henry Montgomery has survived the remarkable arc of the Supreme Court’s evolution on juvenile sentencing. In 1970, Louisiana sentenced him to die in prison for the murder of a police officer, a crime he committed when he was seventeen years old.1 The sentence was mandatory, and it was perfectly legal. At that time it was also perfectly legal to execute juveniles. A generation later, the Supreme Court barred the execution of children under age sixteen in 1988,2 but the next year refused to extend the bar to all juveniles.3 Not until 2005 did the Court exempt all juveniles from the death penalty.4 In half a decade, the Court ruled that juveniles could not be imprisoned for life without any possibility of release for non-homicides.5 A mere two years later, yet forty-six years after Mr. Montgomery’s conviction, the Court declared, in Miller v. Alabama,6 that mandatory life sentences like Mr. Montgomery’s were unconstitutional.
Miller confirmed the lessons of these prior decisions that children’s youth and immaturity make them categorically different for sentencing purposes, and that life imprisonment without parole is akin to the death penalty for juveniles. Thus, automatically sentencing children to a lifetime of imprisonment “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.”7 The Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and usual punishments” therefore prohibits such sentences.
But Mr. Montgomery’s path to a hope for release was not yet complete. In fact, it was cut off by the Louisiana Supreme Court. That court ruled Mr. Montgomery could not benefit from Miller8 because,9 under the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Teague v. Lane,10 Miller did not apply retroactively to cases that were already final at the time of the decision. Mr. Montgomery’s case became final in 1984, thirty years too soon.
In Montgomery v. Louisiana,11 the Supreme Court reversed the Louisiana Supreme Court and held that Miller applies retroactively. The Court found that, by categorically prohibiting life sentences for the majority of juveniles whose crimes reflect “transient immaturity” rather than “irreparable corruption,” Miller announced a substantive rule of criminal law that is not subject to Teague’s general bar against retroactivity. Now, unless Louisiana can show that the crimes of those like Montgomery demonstrate “irreparable corruption,” it must grant them meaningful hope of “some years of life outside prison walls.”12
As discussed below, Montgomery affirmed the Court’s supremacy in declaring federal law while bolstering the significant limits that Miller places on states’ ability to condemn any juvenile to die in prison. But the Court left unresolved a critical question: how much hope for release is enough? Whatever the answer, it must account for Miller’s impact on the obligation of states to grant parole to juveniles facing lifelong incarceration. This article asserts that Miller cabins the state’s power to deny parole permanently to reformed juveniles. It does so by creating a modest, but absolute, liberty interest in release before death for rehabilitated youth. The Supreme Court, rather than state parole systems, must be the ultimate protector of this right.