High school junior shares students' opinion with Michigan Supreme Court



By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Imagine you are a 16-year-old student and your aunt, who is helping to write an amicus brief on an important case before the Michigan Supreme Court, discusses with you what is at stake in the matter. You become passionate about the issue and repercussions of the decision. What do you do?

If you are Matilyn Sarosi, you write your own amicus brief, despite the steep learning curve that entails.

And then you get 450 of the 530 students in your school, in this case the private Catholic academy Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, to sign on.

Young Matilyn figured she knew something about the case coming up before the court in February because it concerns the life sentences given to juveniles, and she and her classmates are juveniles.

The United States Supreme Court decided in Miller v. Alabama, in 2012, that it is unconstitutional for states to impose mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole as punishment for crimes committed by juveniles. The Miller decision did not preclude such sentences but imposed some standards on sentencing judges, including weighing “the degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and assess[ing] that youth’s chances to become rehabilitated” (SCOTUS blog).

The decision begs the question: what can be done about those juveniles who already have such life sentences? Should the decision be considered retroactive, and apply to the 363 juvenile lifers in Michigan?

The high court of the land provided no clear guidance on that question.

Once the students at Father Gabriel Richard agreed to sign on, Matilyn faced another problem: as a non-lawyer, she is allowed to submit such a brief to the court.

Enter Jon Muth of Grand Rapids firm Miller Johnson.

The amicus brief on which Matilyn’s aunt MaryAnn Sarosi was working was one that former Governor Milliken initiated on behalf of a variety of retired judges, U.S. district attorneys, prosecutors, former Bar leaders, law school deans and professors, and others. The Supreme Court listing calls it “Amicus Brief by Ad Hoc Committee of Retired Judges et al.”

Several distinguished area attorneys and judges signed on to that brief: Hon. Janet Haynes, Hon. H. David Soet, James Brady, Donald A. Davis, Scott Brinkmeyer, Bruce Neckers, and Muth.

In the course of asking him to consider becoming one of the amici in that brief, MaryAnn Sarosi discussed her niece’s situation with Muth. “I mean, he’s one of the most well respected lawyers in the state,” she says. “I knew if Matilyn was going to follow through with this she would need to have somebody filing it for her. He was receptive right away, thinking that the students’ perspective was important, but when he got the actual brief, I think he was really impressed. For me, it was striking that he decided just based on it being a good thing to do — because he thought that perspective would be good for the courts to hear.”

The Michigan Supreme Court justices during oral arguments indicated that they will issue their decision based on whether Miller is considered substantive or procedural, as set out in Teague v. Lane (1989) and elsewhere. Attorneys for the state argued that Miller makes only a procedural change, and therefore should not be applied retroactively; attorneys for the defendants in the three cases combined for the court’s review, People v. Raymond Carp, People v. Cortez Davis, and People v. Dakotah Eliason, claim that Miller represents a substantive change.

But many people outside the court system see the conflict very differently.

In their view, the question is whether it is fair for some juveniles to be excluded from the prohibition against mandatory life without parole, while others have not been. By extension, they see this as calling into question their belief that juveniles are capable of deep change and, therefore, rehabilitation.

This is at the heart of Matilyn Sarosi’s amicus brief. She spent hours and hours of her free time writing it, consulting her school’s leadership, and engaging her classmates  — which involved communicating with their parents and giving no fewer than 13 in-school presentations.

As to why, she says, “Well, I think a big factor was that I and my classmates are peers to these individuals, and reflecting on our lives, so many of these individuals were our age when they were sentenced. I kept thinking about the fact that there was no hope for them. Also, just logically I think the Supreme Court has said this is not OK, so if it’s wrong, shouldn’t it apply backwards?”

Moreover, she points out, “...it fits beautifully with the message of Catholic social teaching and Catholic social justice.”

Matilyn’s mother Kimm Sarosi added, “As Catholics, we believe that people can change for the better.”

And Matilyn continues in her mature and articulate way, “Deep down, we have to believe that somehow people are able to change and we do have a capacity for redemption.”

Matilyn wrote the brief, citing court cases and other scholarly works, to make that very point, particularly in the context of how the teenage brain works and the potential for growth.

Mike Sarosi, her dad, said that he was in full agreement, based on his faith, but he worried chiefly about one thing: “We all thought about the families of the victims.”

Indeed, several of the victims’ family members submitted their own amicus brief. One of the brief’s sections is entitled “Several Amici Believe Denying the Possibility of Parole for Children Sentenced to Life Leaves Them to Die in Jail and Serves no Functional Purpose or Benefit to Society,” and another, “Amici Oppose the Mandatory Imposition of Life Sentences..., Because Many Believe Youth Offenders Deserve Special Considerations Affording Them Different Sentences.”

The victims’ brief, which Justice Mary Beth Kelly called “compelling” during oral argument, was also signed by several victims’ rights organizations.

In submitting on behalf of the Father Gabriel Richards students, Muth enlisted the aid of one of Miller Johnson’s associates, Patrick Jaicomo, who had clerked for two years for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman.

Jaicomo comments, “It’s almost hard to believe because if you read the brief, it doesn’t sound like the writing of a 16-year-old. After my first read,” he adds, chuckling, “I said, this is significantly better than some of the briefs that come before the Supreme Court.”

All of Matilyn’s AP History classmates attended the court’s oral arguments in February. She had many thoughts about the likely outcome, but recognizes that the final decision will probably return to the U.S. Supreme Court, since states have come to different conclusions about retroactivity.

“Of the four states having the most juvenile lifers, Pennsylvania has ruled it’s not retroactive, Florida has said yes, Louisiana said no, and Michigan is just deciding,” the young researcher says. “But other large states, like Texas and Illinois, have made it retroactive.”

Matilyn has been very touched by the outpouring of gratitude from prisoners for her involvement. One made a flag-like drawing with her name at the top. A woman who had been incarcerated for 17 years but was pardoned by former Governor Jennifer Granholm, and was doing well post-release, treated the entire student body to a pizza party.

Matilyn is not sure about her future career but says she will think about the law. “Going into this I didn’t think so, but now I’m considering it,” she says. “This has certainly opened my eyes.”