May 17, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Graham v. Florida; Dismisses Writ of Certiorari as Improvidently Granted in Sullivan v. Florida

On May 17, the Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, holding that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.

When he was 16, Terrance Jamar Graham and three other school-age youths attempted to rob a restaurant. Graham was arrested and the prosecutor chose to treat Graham as an adult when charging him with armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed robbery. The former is a first-degree felony with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and the latter is a second-degree felony with a maximum penalty of 15 years' imprisonment. Graham ultimately entered into a plea agreement accepted by the trial court, under which the court withheld adjudication of guilt and sentenced Graham to concurrent three-year probation terms. Less than 18 months later, Graham again was arrested. He admitted that he had violated the conditions of his probation by fleeing in an attempt to avoid arrest, and he was found guilty of the earlier charges. Although Graham's attorney, the Florida Department of Corrections, and the State all recommended lower sentences, the trial court sentenced Graham to life imprisonment on the armed-burglary charge and 15 years on the attempted-armed-robbery charge. Because Florida has statutorily abolished its parole system, the life sentence gave Graham no possibility of release in the absence of executive clemency. Graham filed a motion challenging his sentence under the Eight Amendment. The trial court failed to rule on his motion, the Florida appellate court later affirmed Graham's sentence, and the Florida Supreme Court denied review.

The Supreme Court held that Graham's sentence was unconstitutional. The Court first noted that its prior cases addressing the proportionality of sentences under the Eighth Amendment involved either challenges to the length of term-of-years sentences or categorical restrictions on the death penalty. This case was unique because it involved a categorical challenge to the length of a term-of-years sentence. After considering objective evidence regarding contemporary values, actual practices among jurisdictions, the diminished moral culpability of a juvenile offender, and the range of legitimate penological goals, the Court concluded that the challenged sentence was cruel and unusual.

The Court rejected the State's argument that other existing laws take sufficient account of the age of a judicial offender, observing that discretion to impose various sentences does not eliminate the possibility of a cruel-and-unusual punishment such as the one imposed here. The Court specifically took note of the related case of Sullivan v. Florida, argued the same day as Graham's case, in which a 13-year-old was charged as an adult for a sexual assault and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The Court also rejected another alternative to its categorical holding, which would have been to hold that the Eighth Amendment requires courts to take the offender's age into consideration as part of a case-specific gross-disproportionality inquiry. The Court decided that the case-by-case inquiry must be confined by certain boundaries, including the holding announced here.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, also filed a separate concurring opinion. Chief Justice Roberts filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia joined and Justice Alito joined in part. Justice Alito also filed a separate dissenting opinion.

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In a related action, the Court dismissed the writ of certiorari in Sullivan v. Florida, No. 08-7621, mentioned in the Graham opinion, as improvidently granted.

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