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Ala. Juvenile Murderers Law Ruled Unconstitutional


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. There have been a couple of big Supreme Court rulings today. Our correspondent Nina Totenberg told us of one earlier this hour. The Court struck down several provisions of an Arizona immigration law. The Court found the provisions conflict with federal law, but the Court did not strike down - at least for now - one part of the law which allows police to demand papers from suspected illegal immigrants. So, that's one decision. Let's talk about the other one; a little less noticed, but quite significant.

The Supreme Court says it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for the crime of murder. NPR's Carrie Johnson is covering that part of the story. Hi, Carrie.


INSKEEP: She's in our studios. What was the case that led to this ruling?

JOHNSON: There were a couple of cases from lower courts in the South and they both involved defenders who were as young as 14 years old. In one episode, a kid did a stick-up in a convenience store. He was not the triggerman, but the clerk was killed by somebody the juvenile was with. And in another episode, a couple of juveniles went to a trailer, smoked marijuana, had drinks with an adult. When the adult passed out, they robbed him, he woke up, and they popped him over the head with a baseball bat.

INSKEEP: Horrible crime, so yeah.

JOHNSON: Set afire, he wound up dying. Yes. But the court has ruled that to sentence a juvenile to life without - prison without the possibility of parole - is violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, Steve.

INSKEEP: And does that go - does that take that protection of cruel and unusual punishment to a place where it has not been before? I mean, was there a time when it was accepted to execute a 14 - or sentence a 14-year-old to life in prison without parole.

JOHNSON: That's an excellent question, Steve, because it gets right to the heart of the dispute. The Court ruled 5-4 in this case; the justices in the majority, led by Elena Kagan - the Obama appointee - said this result was the logical extension of a series of cases in which the high court has already ruled out executing juvenile offenders, and also some other strains of precedent in that regard. But people like Samuel Alito, who is on the other side of this case, read a very strong dissent from the bench and said that this court today was misinterpreting precedent and extending that case law with regard to juveniles way too far, in his view.

INSKEEP: OK, so the Court has said it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles as young as 14 to life in prison without parole. You said it's a 5 to 4 decision. You mentioned an Obama appointee leading the majority. You mentioned a George W. Bush appointee leading the minority. And this leads to my question. Isn't this exactly the kind of ruling that the chief justice, John Roberts has wanted to avoid during all his tenure as chief justice?

JOHNSON: Chief Justice Roberts has said he wants to try to avoid fractured, especially splits that appear to be partisan. However, it's worth noting, Steve, that in the last couple of week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton appointee, said at a legal conference that she expected to see some sharp splits in the weeks to come. This is the first of what could be many on a very busy week at the high court.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. I wasn't aware of that pronouncement by Ginsburg. Are people reading into that something about the health care decision that we're all waiting on here?

JOHNSON: People are reading everything into the health care decision...


JOHNSON: ...but nobody knows for sure except for about nine justices and their clerks at this point.

INSKEEP: OK, so just reviewing again. What we do know, we do know that the Supreme Court has struck down some, but not quite all, of Arizona's immigration law, and we know that the Supreme Court - on this 5-4 decision now - has said that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole. That much we know. NPR's Carrie Johnson is here telling us about it. Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can stay tuned to NPR News throughout the day, and indeed throughout the week, as we learn more about these rulings, and also await that big ruling on President Obama's health care law; not expected today anymore but could come soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.