The Supreme Court has the final word – but is it final?
Based on recent history, the answer is No.* As society evolves so does the court. In considering life and death decisions that come before it, the Court is sensitive to current scientific research as well as what’s been called a “national consensus” on these issues. Consider the following cases that affect juveniles in the United States and how the Court has changed its mind in significant ways.
Juveniles and the Death Penalty
In 1988, the Court had before it the question of whether a minor could be sentenced to death. In Thompson v. Oklahoma, Billy Thompson was 15 years-old when he and others murdered his brother-in-law. Billy was tried and convicted as an adult and was sentenced to death. His appeals took him to the Supreme Court that ruled against the death penalty for anyone who commits a crime while age 15 or younger. The Court said that such an act would violate the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. . . .Minors often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment expected of adults. The normal fifteen-year-old is not prepared to assume the full responsibilities of an adult.”
The next year, 1989, saw another case considered by the Supreme Court. In Stanford v. Kentucky, Kevin Stanford was 17 when he was convicted of murder, robbery and sodomy. He was sentenced to death and appealed his conviction. The Court upheld his sentence holding that states can impose the death penalty on 16 and 17-year-olds who qualify depending on the circumstances of the case.
Sixteen years later, the issue was once again before the Court. In Roper v. Simmons, Christopher Simmons was 17 when he was sentenced to death for kidnapping a woman and throwing her off a bridge into the river below after tying her up and wrapping her head in a towel and duct tape. However, since Stanford’s case in 1989, studies showed that the majority of Americans opposed the death penalty for minors. Taking this into consideration as well as scientific evidence regarding the development of the adolescent brain, the Court ruled in 2005 for Simmons and prohibited imposition of the death penalty for all defendants convicted of a crime before age 18.
In the Roper case, the Court said “The character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, juveniles aren’t trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of an adult, and their crimes aren’t as morally unacceptable as those of adults.
Even the death penalty, as it applies to adults in America, is undergoing some reconsideration. In May, 2016, two Supreme Court justices (Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) expressed their desire to take up the issue of the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Juveniles and Life Without the Possibility of Parole
This reasoning was extended five years later to juveniles sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases. Terrance Graham was sentenced to life without parole when he was seventeen years old in Florida. He had several robberies on his record. In 2010, the Court ruled that such a punishment violated the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishments. Some hope for rehabilitation should be available to youthful offenders.
Then, in 2012, the Court had before it two juveniles who were convicted in homicide cases and received life without parole sentences. In the Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson** cases, the Court extended its reasoning from the Roper and Graham decisions to those in prison for homicide convictions. The decision held that states could not mandate a life without parole sentence – that sentencing judges must take into consideration all factors of the juvenile offender’s life including age and criminal history. The Court wrote that it expected such sentences to be “uncommon” but left such a sentence to the states.
There are examples of the Court’s ability to take all factors into consideration when deciding a case. Nothing is automatic or follows a set formula. Life in America is oftentimes a factor in the Court’s deliberations. “National consensus” carries a certain amount of weight that can sway a ruling one way or another.
An older example concerns saluting the flag. In the 1930s, many states passed laws requiring schoolchildren to salute the flag. This would happen at the beginning of the school day in the morning. At least twenty states had such laws. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court review four cases challenging these state laws and, in each case, upheld the compulsory salute. Then in 1940, they reversed themselves in Minersville v. Gobitis*** finding that the students’ freedom of expression found in the First Amendment, was violated by a forced salute.
* Between 1801 and 2004, the Supreme Court reversed itself 223 times. (Dissent and the Supreme Court by Melvin I. Urofsky, page 408 Pantheon Books).
** Kuntrell Jackson was paroled on April 28, 2021.
*** Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940).