Arizona judges are free to sentence juveniles to what amount to de facto life sentences despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings that appear to prohibit that, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices insisted they were not ignoring what the nation’s high court has repeatedly ruled.
Instead, they said, those legal precedents involved juveniles who were sentenced to life behind bars without possibility of parole for a single crime. The Arizona cases, the justices here wrote, all involved juveniles sentenced to consecutive sentences for multiple crimes.
And that, wrote Justice John Lopez, means judges here handling juvenile cases are not bound by the U.S. Supreme Court precedent even though their consecutive terms amounted to the same thing.
But Lopez did not stop there. He and his colleagues took a slap at the justices on the nation’s high court for issuing their original rulings barring life sentences for juveniles in the first place, saying they were based on “judgments of other nations and the international community.”
“Relying on a single study about the sentencing practices of other nations, the (U.S. Supreme) Court observed that the United States stood alone in subjecting juveniles to parole-ineligible sentences,” Lopez said.
That conclusion clearly did not sit well with the Arizona justices.
“We pause here to express our concern with the Court’s reliance on international laws and judgments to resolve an issue raised under the United States Constitution, particularly when they are invoked by the court to disregard the most reliable evidence of national consensus: the will of the American people as expressed through their state laws,” Lopez wrote. “Such implicit deference to foreign decisions runs the risk of ceding to foreign government what our laws and our Constitution mean, and what our policies in America should be.”
Friday’s decision involves three cases:
– Martin Raul Soto-Fong, sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the 1992 robbery and triple murder at a Tucson El Grande Market, who will not be eligible for release until he has served 109 years behind bars;
– Wade Nolan Clay convicted of murder and attempted murder in a case out of Mohave County and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years, and 12 years after that;
– Mark Noriki Kasic Jr. sentenced to consecutive prison sentencing totaling nearly 140 years after being convicted of six counts of arson and other charges stemming from a series of fires in Tucson garages and homes between 2007 and 2010.
Lawyers for all three petitioned for reduction of sentence based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the last decade which concluded there was a “national consensus” against imposing parole-ineligible life sentences on juveniles. The attorneys said that the consecutive sentences, while allow for parole, effectively became life terms which they said the nation’s high court has precluded.
Lopez acknowledged that the most recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling states that sentences of life without parole are barred “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
But Lopez said he and his colleagues are interpreting that as not a categorical ban.
“It merely mandated that trial courts follow a certain process — considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics — before imposing a particular penalty,” he wrote.
Lopez also said nothing in those rulings say juveniles “must have a chance for reconciliation with society.”
And then there’s the big difference on which the Arizona Supreme Court is hanging its legal hat.
In each of the cases decided by the justices in Washington, the juveniles were sentenced to life without parole for a single crime. What happened here, Lopez said, is “very different.”
“Each received multiple sentences for multiple crimes which, in the aggregate, resulted in terms of incarceration that will or may exceed their life expectancy,” he wrote. And that difference, Lopez said, is what allows him and his colleagues to uphold the sentences at issue.
Then there’s the issue that the Arizona Legislature has never said that juveniles cannot be locked up for life.
Lopez said courts elsewhere which have held de facto life terms unconstitutional “have invariably usurped the legislative prerogative to devise a novel sentence scheme or otherwise delegated the task to trial courts to do so.”
“Here, petitioners invite us to invade the province of the legislature,” he said. Lopez, however, said the court has to act out of “our respect for the separation of powers, the will of our citizens, and the principles of judicial restraint.”