Montgomery v. Louisiana

PETITIONER: Henry Montgomery
LOCATION: Louisiana Supreme Court

DOCKET NO.: 14-280
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Louisiana Supreme Court

CITATION: 577 US (2016)
GRANTED: Mar 23, 2015
ARGUED: Oct 13, 2015
DECIDED: Jan 25, 2016

Michael R. Dreeben - Deputy Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the petitioner
Richard D. Bernstein - for the Court-appointed amicus curiae
S. Kyle Duncan - for the respondent
Mark D. Plaisance - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1963, Henry Montgomery was found guilty and received the death penalty for the murder of Charles Hunt, which Montgomery committed less than two weeks after he turned 17. He appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and his conviction was overturned because of community prejudice. At his new trial, Montgomery was again convicted, but he was sentenced to life without parole.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court held that mandatory sentencing schemes requiring children convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole violate the Eighth Amendment. In light of that decision, Montgomery filed a motion in state district court to correct what he argued was now an illegal sentence. The trial court denied Montgomery’s motion, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Montgomery’s application by holding that the decision in Miller does not apply retroactively.


1) Does the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing schemes that require children convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, apply retroactively?

(2)Does the U.S. Supreme Court have the jurisdiction to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s determination that the Miller rule does not apply retroactively?

Media for Montgomery v. Louisiana

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 13, 2015 in Montgomery v. Louisiana

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 25, 2016 in Montgomery v. Louisiana

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case 14-280, Montgomery versus Louisiana.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Petitioner, Henry Montgomery, was sentenced to a mandatory life without parole for murder he committed when he was 17 years old.

Almost 50 years after Montgomery was taken into custody, still serving the sentence, this Court decided Miller versus Alabama.

That case holds that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment.

After the Court decision in Miller, Montgomery sought state collateral review of his sentence and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied review.

It relied on a previous decision that had held Miller does not have retroactive effect in cases on state collateral review.

This Court granted Montgomery's petition of certiorari in order to resolve whether Miller adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review.

The Court directed the parties to address whether it has jurisdiction to review the Louisiana Supreme Court's refusal to give retroactive effect in Miller and this Court's analysis begins with that jurisdictional question.

In Teague versus Lane, a 1989 case, this Court set forth a framework for retroactivity in cases on federal collateral review.

Under Teague, a constitutional Rule of Criminal Procedure does not apply to convictions that were final when the new rule was announced, but new substantive rules of constitutional law do have a retroactive effect.

Substantive rules include rules forbidding criminal punishment of certain primary conduct as well as rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.

Now Teague originated in a federal not state habeas proceeding.

The Court now holds that when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of the case the Constitution does require collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that substantive rule.

This Court's precedents addressing the nature of substantive rules, their differences from procedural rules and their history of retroactive application establish that the Constitution requires substantive rules to have retroactive effect regardless of when a conviction becomes final.

Where procedural errors or a procedural error has infected the trial, the resulting conviction or sentence may still be accurate.

The same possibility of a valid result does not exist where a substantive rule has eliminated as state's power to prescribe the defendant's conduct or impose a given punishment.

When state collateral review proceedings permit prisoners to challenge the lawfulness of their confinement, states cannot refuse to give retroactive effect to a substantive constitutional right that determines the outcome of that challenge.

Since Montgomery alleges that the Louisiana Supreme Court erred by failing to recognize Miller's substantive and retroactive effect, this Court does has jurisdiction to review that determination and that leads to the question whether Miller did announce a substantive rule.

Miller held that in light of children's diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders possess or pose too a great a risk of disproportionate punishment.

Before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, the sentencer must take into account how children are different and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.

A sentencing court might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified, but Miller makes clear that appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption that render life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for a class of the defendants because of their status, that is juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.

As a result Miller announced that substantive rule of constitutional law that is retroactive on collateral review.

Giving Miller retroactive effect does not require states to re-litigate sentences in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.

A state may remand a Miller violation and remedy it by permitting the juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole rather than by re-sentencing them.

For these and other reasons set forth in the opinion, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana is reversed.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas and Alito join.

Justice Thomas has filed dissenting opinion.