This post was originally published on the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog on Oct. 11, 2020. 

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Arizona handed down a unanimous rejection of claims by multiple juvenile offenders subject to de facto life sentences for multiple sentences in Arizona v. Soto-Fong, No. CR-18-0595 (Ariz. Oct. 9, 2020) (available here). Here is how the opinion begins and a concluding paragraph:

We consider whether consecutive sentences imposed for separate crimes, when the cumulative sentences exceed a juvenile’s life expectancy, violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.” We conclude that such de facto life sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment, as interpreted in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). Consequently, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery do not constitute a significant change in the law under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g)….

Despite the shifting and confusing reasoning embodied in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery, we are bound by the Supremacy Clause to faithfully apply this jurisprudence as we fairly construe it. Davis, 206 Ariz. at 384 ¶ 34 n.4. But because those cases do not address or implicate de facto juvenile life sentences, we decline Petitioners’ invitation to expand this jurisprudence one step beyond its reach. Our respect for the separation of powers, the will of our citizens, and principles of judicial restraint, rather than dicta from inapposite cases, compel our decision. Thus, we hold that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit de facto juvenile life sentences.

As this last quoted paragraph may reveal, the Soto-Fong opinion is full of a good deal of snark about the US Supreme Court’s rulings in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery. Discussing Graham, for example, the Arizona Supreme Court calls part of the SCOTUS ruling “dubious” and then takes a “pause” to express “concern” with the Graham opinion’s reference to international law. Perhaps it is thus unsurprising that the Arizona Supreme Court was seemingly keen to affirm in this case an “enhanced concurrent and consecutive prison sentences totaling nearly 140 years” for a teenager who committed a series of serious arsons.

Douglas A. Berman

Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University

Douglas Berman is the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at Moritz College of Law. He is the sole creator and author of the widely-read and widely-cited blog, Sentencing Law and Policy. The blog now receives nearly 100,000 page views per month (and had over 20,000 hits the day of the Supreme Court’s major sentencing decision in United States v. Booker). Professor Berman’s work on the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, which he describes as a form of “scholarship in action,” has been profiled or discussed at length in articles appearing in the Wall Street Journal, Legal Affairs magazine, Lawyers Weekly USA, Legal Times,Columbus Monthly, and in numerous other print and online publications.

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