Montgomery v. Louisiana

Citation577 U.S. 190,136 S.Ct. 718,193 L.Ed.2d 599
Decision Date25 January 2016
Docket NumberNo. 14–280.,14–280.
Parties Henry MONTGOMERY, Petitioner v. LOUISIANA.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Richard D. Bernstein, appointed by this Court, as amicus curiae.

Michael R. Dreeben for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the Petitioner.

S. Kyle Duncan, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Mark D. Plaisance, Thibodaux, LA, for Petitioner.

Mark Plaisance, Lindsay Jarrell Blouin, Office of the Public Defender, Thibodaux, LA, Sean Collins, Baton Rouge, LA, Marsha Levick, Emily C. Keller, Jean W. Strout, Philadelphia, PA, Jeffrey J. Pokorak, Boston, MA, for Petitioner.

James D. "Buddy" Caldwell, Louisiana Attorney General, Trey Phillips, First Assistant, Attorney General, Colin A. Clark, Assistant Attorney General, Louisiana Department of Justice, Baton Rouge, LA, Hillar C. Moore, III, District Attorney, Dylan C. Alge, Assistant District Attorney, Baton Rouge, LA, S. Kyle Duncan, Duncan PLLC, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is another case in a series of decisions involving the sentencing of offenders who were juveniles when their crimes were committed. In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), the Court held that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole absent consideration of the juvenile's special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing. In the wake of Miller , the question has arisen whether its holding is retroactive to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were final when Miller was decided. Courts have reached different conclusions on this point. Compare, e.g., Martin v. Symmes, 782 F.3d 939, 943 (C.A.8 2015) ; Johnson v. Ponton, 780 F.3d 219, 224–226 (C.A.4 2015) ; Chambers v. State, 831 N.W.2d 311, 331 (Minn.2013) ; and State v. Tate, 2012–2763, p. 17 (La.11/5/13), 130 So.3d 829, 841, with Diatchenko v. District Attorney for Suffolk Dist., 466 Mass. 655, 661–667, 1 N.E.3d 270, 278–282 (2013) ; Aiken v. Byars, 410 S.C. 534, 548, 765 S.E.2d 572, 578 (2014) ; State v. Mares, 2014 WY 126, ¶¶ 47–63, 335 P.3d 487, 504–508 ; and People v. Davis, 2014 IL 115595, ¶ 41, 379 Ill.Dec. 381, 6 N.E.3d 709, 722. Certiorari was granted in this case to resolve the question.


Petitioner is Henry Montgomery. In 1963, Montgomery killed Charles Hurt, a deputy sheriff in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Montgomery was 17 years old at the time of the crime. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed his conviction after finding that public prejudice had prevented a fair trial. State v. Montgomery, 248 La. 713, 181 So.2d 756, 762 (1966).

Montgomery was retried. The jury returned a verdict of "guilty without capital punishment."

State v. Montgomery, 257 La. 461, 242 So.2d 818 (1970). Under Louisiana law, this verdict required the trial court to impose a sentence of life without parole. The sentence was automatic upon the jury's verdict, so Montgomery had no opportunity to present mitigation evidence to justify a less severe sentence. That evidence might have included Montgomery's young age at the time of the crime; expert testimony regarding his limited capacity for foresight, self-discipline, and judgment; and his potential for rehabilitation. Montgomery, now 69 years old, has spent almost his entire life in prison.

Almost 50 years after Montgomery was first taken into custody, this Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407. Miller held that mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on " ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ " Id ., at ––––, 132 S.Ct., at 2460. "By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence," mandatory life without parole " poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment." Id., at ––––, 132 S.Ct., at 2469. Miller required that sentencing courts consider a child's "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change" before condemning him or her to die in prison. Ibid. Although Miller did not foreclose a sentencer's ability to impose life without parole on a juvenile, the Court explained that a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect " ‘irreparable corruption.’ " Ibid. (quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 573, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005) ).

After this Court issued its decision in Miller , Montgomery sought collateral review of his mandatory life-without-parole sentence. In Louisiana there are two principal mechanisms for collateral challenge to the lawfulness of imprisonment. Each begins with a filing in the trial court where the prisoner was convicted and sentenced. La.Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Arts. 882, 926 (West 2008). The first procedure permits a prisoner to file an application for postconviction relief on one or more of seven grounds set forth in the statute. Art. 930.3. The Louisiana Supreme Court has held that none of those grounds provides a basis for collateral review of sentencing errors. See State ex rel. Melinie v. State, 93–1380 (La.1/12/96), 665 So.2d 1172 (per curiam ). Sentencing errors must instead be raised through Louisiana's second collateral review procedure.

This second mechanism allows a prisoner to bring a collateral attack on his or her sentence by filing a motion to correct an illegal sentence. See Art. 882. Montgomery invoked this procedure in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Court.

The state statute provides that "[a]n illegal sentence may be corrected at any time by the court that imposed the sentence." Ibid . An illegal sentence "is primarily restricted to those instances in which the term of the prisoner's sentence is not authorized by the statute or statutes which govern the penalty" for the crime of conviction. State v. Mead, 2014–1051, p. 3 (La.App. 4 Cir. 4/22/15), 165 So.3d 1044, 1047 ; see also State v. Alexander, 2014–0401 (La.11/7/14), 152 So.3d 137 (per curiam ). In the ordinary course Louisiana courts will not consider a challenge to a disproportionate sentence on collateral review; rather, as a general matter, it appears that prisoners must raise Eighth Amendment sentencing challenges on direct review. See State v. Gibbs, 620 So.2d 296, 296–297 (La.App.1993) ; Mead, 165 So.3d, at 1047.

Louisiana's collateral review courts will, however, consider a motion to correct an illegal sentence based on a decision of this Court holding that the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution prohibits a punishment for a type of crime or a class of offenders. When, for example, this Court held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), that the Eighth Amendment bars life-without-parole sentences for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, Louisiana courts heard Graham claims brought by prisoners whose sentences had long been final. See, e.g., State v. Shaffer, 2011–1756, pp. 1–4 (La.11/23/11), 77 So.3d 939, 940–942 (per curiam ) (considering motion to correct an illegal sentence on the ground that Graham rendered illegal a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile nonhomicide offender). Montgomery's motion argued that Miller rendered his mandatory life-without-parole sentence illegal.

The trial court denied Montgomery's motion on the ground that Miller is not retroactive on collateral review. Montgomery then filed an application for a supervisory writ. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied the application. 2013–1163 (6/20/14), 141 So.3d 264. The court relied on its earlier decision in State v. Tate, 2012–2763, 130 So.3d 829, which held that Miller does not have retroactive effect in cases on state collateral review. Chief Justice Johnson and Justice Hughes dissented in Tate , and Chief Justice Johnson again noted her dissent in Montgomery's case.

This Court granted Montgomery's petition for certiorari. The petition presented the question "whether Miller adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison." Pet. for Cert. i. In addition, the Court directed the parties to address the following question: "Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller ?" 575 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 1546, 191 L.Ed.2d 635 (2015).


The parties agree that the Court has jurisdiction to decide this case. To ensure this conclusion is correct, the Court appointed Richard D. Bernstein as amicus curiae to brief and argue the position that the Court lacks jurisdiction. He has ably discharged his assigned responsibilities.

Amicus argues that a State is under no obligation to give a new rule of constitutional law retroactive effect in its own collateral review proceedings. As those proceedings are created by state law and under the State's plenary control, amicus contends, it is for state courts to define applicable principles of retroactivity. Under this view, the Louisiana Supreme Court's decision does not implicate a federal right; it only determines the scope of relief available in a particular type of state proceeding—a question of state law beyond this Court's power to review.

If, however, the Constitution establishes a rule and requires that the rule have retroactive application, then a state court's refusal to give the rule retroactive effect is reviewable by this Court. Cf. Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314, 328, 107 S.Ct. 708, 93 L.Ed.2d 649 (1987) (holding that on direct review, a new constitutional rule must be applied retroactively "to all cases, state or federal"). States may not disregard a controlling, constitutional command in their own courts. See Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 1...

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