It was a newsy morning at the Supreme Court today, with four rulings, including a victory for the United States in a case argued by Solicitor General Elena Kagan. The Court also issued a landmark ruling on life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide crimes. The Court did not rule in the long-awaited Bilski v. Kappos case on the patent eligibility of business method inventions. The Court sits next for releasing opinions on May 24.
In the juvenile sentencing case, Graham v. Florida (pdf), Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a 6-3 majority that such a sentence categorically violates the Eighth Amendment bar against cruel and unusual punishments. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. joined the bottom-line judgment only, arguing that the sentence in the case should be struck down, but not based on a categorical rule. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. dissented.
In Sullivan v. Florida (pdf), argued separately from the Graham case but raising a similar issue, the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted.
The Graham decision is already being viewed as a major Eighth Amendment decision. “The Supreme Court today has handed down its biggest and potentially most consequential Eighth Amendment ruling for non-death penalty cases in its history,” said Ohio State University Moritz College of Law professor Douglas Berman. “In addition to potentially providing new constitutional claims for many juveniles sentenced to very long prison terms for nonhomicide offenses, the ruling likely will produce challenges for lawyers and lower courts to determine just whether and when other extreme prison terms are constitutionally problematic.”
In United States v. Comstock (pdf), argued by Solicitor General and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Jan. 12, the Court upheld a federal law that allows mentally ill, sexually deviant federal offenders to be committed civilly beyond the end of their prison sentences.
During arguments, several justices seemed to view the law as a congressional intrusion on state powers, but in the decision seven justices agreed the law was constitutional. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the opinion, and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. This is the second victory for Kagan among the six cases she argued as solicitor general this term. The first was Salazar v. Buono, a church-state case. The Court ruled against her in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and the other three she argued are still undecided.
The other case handed down this morning was Abbott v. Abbott (pdf), an international child custody case. The Court ruled that the father in the case has a right of custody under the Hague Convention on international child abductions.
Check back here later and at nlj.com for more on today’s high court action.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.