Justices extend bar on automatic life terms for teenagers

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - More than 1,000 prison inmates, some behind bars more than 50 years for murders they committed as teenagers, will get a chance to seek their freedom under a Supreme Court decision announced Monday.

The justices voted 6-3 to extend an earlier ruling from 2012 that struck down automatic life terms with no chance of parole for teenage killers. Now, even those who were convicted long ago must be considered for parole or given a new sentence.

The court ruled in favor of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison more than 50 years for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. Montgomery was 17 years old and playing hooky from high school when he encountered Deputy Charles Hurt, who was on truant patrol. Montgomery pulled a gun from his pocket and shot Hurt dead in a panic, he said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that "prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."

Kennedy said states do not have to go so far as to resentence people serving life terms. Instead, states can offer parole hearings, with no guarantee of release if inmates fail to show that they have been rehabilitated.

Louisiana is among seven states that had refused to apply the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling to about 1,200 inmates who may now qualify for parole hearings. Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania are the other states, according to public interest law firms that advocate on behalf of inmates.

Many states either have no inmates like Montgomery or have given them new prison sentences or parole hearings.

Monday's decision does not expressly foreclose judges from sentencing teenagers to a lifetime in prison. But the Supreme Court has previously said such sentences should be rare, and only for the most heinous crimes.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the ruling "is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders." Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's dissent.

Four years ago, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, the justices struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of release for teenage killers. But the court did not say at the time if that ruling applied retroactively to Montgomery and other inmates like him, whose convictions are final.

In the 5-4 decision from 2012, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority that judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account "the mitigating qualities of youth," among them immaturity and the failure to understand fully the consequences of their actions.

Montgomery himself became a boxing coach and worked in the prison's silkscreen department, which he pointed to as evidence of his maturation.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the 2012 decision barring automatic life sentences for young killers, but he joined the majority on Monday along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan.

The outcome in Montgomery's case is the latest in a line of Supreme Court decisions that have limited states in the way they punish juveniles. Kennedy also wrote the 2005 decision that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. The justices also have barred life without parole sentences for people convicted of crimes other than murder that were committed before they turned 18.

The court often applies groundbreaking decisions in criminal law retroactively.

Montgomery's case highlights some of the problems that inmate advocates say plague the criminal justice system generally. Montgomery is African-American, and he was tried for killing the white deputy in a time of racial tension and reported cross burnings in Baton Rouge.

The State Times newspaper of Baton Rouge ran a front-page headline after Montgomery's arrest: "Negro Held in Deputy's Murder Here." The story noted that "more than 60 Negroes were detained" in a parish-wide manhunt.

The Louisiana Supreme Court threw out Montgomery's first conviction because he did not get a fair trial. He was convicted and sentenced to life after a second trial.

The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.

Appeal to outlaw death penalty rejected

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court is rejecting a Pennsylvania inmate's appeal to consider banning the death penalty across the United States.

The justices did not comment Monday in turning away a challenge from death row inmate Shonda Walter.

Walter's appeal plays off Justice Stephen Breyer's call in an impassioned dissent in June to re-evaluate the death penalty in light of problems involving its imposition and use.

Breyer renewed his plea last week when he was the lone justice willing to give a last-minute reprieve to an Alabama death row inmate who was later put to death.

Justices reject Alabama county's appeal over legal fees

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court said Monday that it won't hear an appeal from lawyers representing Shelby County, Alabama, who tried to recover $2 million in attorney fees from the U.S. government in a case that nullified a key part of the Voting Rights Act.

Shelby County prevailed in 2013 when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to eliminate the Justice Department's ability to stop potentially discriminatory voting laws before they take effect.

The county had challenged the constitutionality of a section of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get preclearance from the federal government before changing local voting protocol.

The Supreme Court struck down the provision, saying the preclearance criteria was based on outdated discriminatory practices and hadn't been updated to reflect shifting social and political needs despite having been reauthorized several times by Congress. Justices also said the provision and its impact weren't being applied equally.

Shelby County argued that winning the case allowed it to recover attorney fees. However, a federal appeals court said in September that Congress was not trying to encourage litigation "to neuter the act's central tool" and parties are entitled to fees when successful litigation advances the goals of Congress.

"Shelby County's lawsuit neither advanced Congress's purpose nor performed some service Congress needed help to accomplish," U.S. Court of Appeals judges said.

In May 2014, U.S. District Judge John Bates said in an opinion that the fee-shifting provision of the Voting Rights Act is meant to incentivize attorneys to pursue litigation that defends individual voting rights. Bates said Shelby County would have been entitled to fees only if it could prove its opponent's position was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.

Calls and emails to the attorney that represented Shelby County and the county manager's office weren't immediately returned.

Court upholds government's energy conservation program

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - In a win for the Obama administration and environmental groups, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld a 5-year-old federal program that pays large electric customers to save energy during times of peak demand.

The justices ruled 6-2 that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had the authority to issue regulations aimed at conserving energy and preventing blackouts.

Supporters of the plan say it has saved billions in energy costs, improved reliability of the power grid and reduced air pollution since it was put in place in 2011. A coalition of utility companies, which have lost millions of dollars in profits under the rule, argued it was too generous and trampled state rights over retail electricity sales.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that the plan intrudes on state power because it affects the purchasing decisions of retail customers.

But the Supreme Court said the commission acted within its authority to regulate wholesale markets and was not attempting to regulate retail sales, which are governed by states.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said even utility companies don't dispute that the plan curbs prices and enhances overall electric reliability, a key purpose of the Federal Power Act. The fact that retail sales are affected doesn't matter, she said.

"The commission's rule addresses - and addresses only - transactions occurring on the wholesale market," Kagan said.

The demand response program pays large electricity customers like retailers, schools and office buildings to reduce energy consumption on hot summer days and other times of peak demand. The reduction in power use means electric utilities don't need to turn on backup power plants, which cost more to run and boost electricity prices.

White House spokesman Frank Benenati called the ruling "good news for consumers, clean energy, reliability and the overall economy."

"This decision allows us to continue realizing billions in annual savings from innovative incentives and business models that ensure we use our electricity system efficiently, as we integrate more energy efficiency and renewable energy onto the power grid," he said.

The rule won wide praise from environmental groups because it curbed the need for utilities to build expensive and air-polluting power plants. The demand response program saved customers in the mid-Atlantic region nearly $12 billion in 2013, according to PJM Interconnection, which manages the wholesale power supply for all or part of 13 states.

"Today's decision is a victory for customer freedom, customer choice and the vibrant market for low cost clean energy," said Vicki Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.

But the rule has meant millions in lost profits for utilities. Those companies argued that the program impermissibly targets retail customers.

The regulation itself has remained in effect while the Supreme Court considered whether it was valid.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, saying the program does in fact regulate retail electricity sales "which are indisputably matters subject to regulation by the states and therefore off-limits to FERC." He was joined in dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Samuel Alito took no part in deciding the case. His most recent financial disclosure indicates he owns stock in Johnson Controls, Inc., which has a subsidiary, EnergyConnect, Inc., that is part of a group defending the commission's regulation.

One utility group critical of the plan, the American Public Power Association, said it supports demand response, but is against federal agencies overstepping their authority. Joe Nipper, a senior vice president of the group, said members object to "the inappropriate payment of the full wholesale energy price for demand response."

Justices won't let North Dakota enforce tough abortion law

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court will not allow North Dakota to enforce a law banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

The justices on Monday turned away the state's appeal of lower court rulings that struck down the 2013 fetal heartbeat law as unconstitutional. The law never took effect, and abortion rights supporters said it was the strictest anti-abortion measure in the country.

The high court last week rejected Arkansas' bid to enforce its own fetal heartbeat law, banning some abortions at 12 weeks. Both measures were struck down by a unanimous panel of three judges appointed by President George W. Bush to the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The judges said the laws were inconsistent with the standard set by the Supreme Court that generally ties abortion restrictions to the viability of the fetus. But the judges urged the Supreme Court to re-evaluate its abortion cases to take account of changes in medicine and science, and the wishes of elected state lawmakers. The current framework "discounts the legislative branch's recognized interest in protecting unborn children," Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote for the panel, which also included Judges William Benton and Lavenski Smith.

North Dakota's Republican-dominated legislature approved the law in 2013, though it was quickly put on hold after the state's lone abortion clinic, in Fargo, filed a lawsuit that July.

The Fargo clinic performs about 1,250 abortions a year and is served by out-of-state physicians licensed to practice in North Dakota. The nearest out-of-state abortion clinics are in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Minneapolis.

The case is Stenehjem v. MKB Management Corp., 15-627.

Published: Wed, Jan 27, 2016