SCOTUS and Arizona Butt Heads Over Juvenile Sentencing

( – The Supreme Court, which has already rebuked the Arizona Supreme Court twice for defying precedent in capital cases, will be imminently handing down a decision on a third ruling by the state court that allows juvenile offenders to be sentenced to die in prison under an Arizona law that mandates life sentences without the possibility of parole.

An amicus brief submitted by a group of 15 law professors told the Supreme Court that Arizona was once again forcing the high court “to vindicate firmly established constitutional rights” because the state refuses to “follow precedent.”

Under the Arizona Supreme Court ruling, individuals sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles would “continue serving unconstitutional sentences,” the amicus brief said.

The US Supreme Court rejected mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit murder before turning 18 in its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama. In its decision, the court said that life without parole must only be an option in state laws to be constitutional.

The case currently before the Supreme Court involves Lonnie Bassett, an Arizona man who was convicted of murdering two people when he was 16 years old. During sentencing in 2006, Arizona law did not give the judge any other option but to sentence him to life in prison without parole.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld Bassett’s sentence in a unanimous opinion last year, noting that under state law, the choice judges have is between sentencing to life without the possibility of any release or life without parole but with the possibility of clemency from the Arizona governor. This hypothetical choice of possible clemency made the law constitutional, the state court ruled.

Attorneys for Lonnie Bassett asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the case, arguing that Bassett’s case would have a ripple effect on more than two dozen other juvenile offenders in Arizona.

Bassett’s attorneys told the Court that the case would present “exceptionally significant questions” about the “supremacy of federal law” and so-called “gamesmanship.”

The Supreme Court is expected to release its decision on Bassett in the coming weeks.

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