Justice Sotomayor Impaled Justice Kavanaugh on His Own Previous Rulings

Charles P. Pierce
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

From out of the recently Trumpified Supreme Court came yet another decision that murdered precedent. Delivering the death blow was Justice Brett Kavanaugh. This was a major flex for the carceral state and a major hit to criminal justice reform. It not only closed off future improvements in that regard, but also undercut what few accomplishments already exist.

The case was Jones v. Mississippi. Over the years, the courts began to look askance at the idea of handing juveniles sentences of life without parole, essentially warehousing individuals for decades in the horrors of the American penal system for crimes they committed as minors. Twice since 2012, the Supreme Court has decided that such sentences were in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. With a single decision, Kavanaugh, good Jesuit-educated lad that he is, and six of his colleagues decided that, instead, such sentences were both just and commonplace. It is yet another example of the current majority’s enthusiasm for gutting precedent while pretending that it’s not, and it is a monstrous legal offense against humanity.

By those two precedents, judges had to conduct separate proceedings before sentencing juveniles to life without parole and to provide a public explanation for those decisions. The 6-3 decision on Thursday for which Kavanaugh wrote the lead opinion effectively wipes out those two requirements which, in tandem, had reduced radically the number of juvenile convicts doing life without parole. And, in keeping with how that new conservative majority on the Court operates, Kavanaugh argues that he is keeping faith with those decisions he is obviously eviscerating. In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas at least acknowledged that the Court was overturning precedents set in cases he considered wrongly decided.

Photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST - Getty Images
Photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST - Getty Images

Anyway, here, from Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, are the facts of the case in question.

Jones was “the victim of violence and neglect that he was too young to escape.” His biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused his mother, who had severe mental health problems. His stepfather abused him, too, using “belts, switches, and a paddle.” He openly expressed his hatred for Jones. When Jones moved to Mississippi to live with his grandparents, he abruptly lost access to medication he took for mental health issues, including hallucinations and self-harm. Jones’ grandfather beat him, as well. One day in 2004, when Jones’ grandfather tried to hit him, Jones stabbed him repeatedly, killing him. He had turned 15 just 23 days earlier. Jones tried to save his grandfather with CPR but failed. After making minimal efforts to conceal the crime, he confessed to the police.

The judge in the lower court simply ignored the requirements of the two ruling precedents, and that’s how Brett Jones’s life ended up in the oh-so-very-Catholic hands of Brett Kavanaugh, who at one point explains that Jones might not serve the rest of his life in the country’s worst state penal system. Some vague day in the dim future, Kavanaugh suggests, the state of Mississippi might take pity on him and let him go. (Since the Court’s previous decisions required states to re-sentence inmates who’d been sentenced to life without parole, Mississippi re-imposed the sentence in more than 25 percent of its cases, trailing only Louisiana in that regard.) Jesus, what a supercilious twerp.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor proved she can see a church by daylight. Edging right up to the limits of intramural politesse, Sotomayor called Kavanaugh out for the heartless, soulless gombeen this decision has revealed him to be.

The Court simply rewrites Miller and Montgomery to say what the Court now wishes they had said, and then denies that it has done any such thing. The Court knows what it is doing. It admits as much.

At which point, Sotomayor impales Kavanaugh on his own previous decisions.

How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk. Not long ago, that doctrine was recognized as a pillar of the “ ‘rule of law,’ ” critical to “keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinion.” Ramos, 590 U. S., at ___–___ (opinion of KAVANAUGH, J.) … Given these weighty interests, the Court “usually re- quire[d] that a party ask for overruling, or at least obtain[ed] briefing on the overruling question,” and then “carefully evaluate[d] the traditional stare decisis factors.” Barr v. American Assn. of Political Consultants, Inc.… Now, it seems, the Court is willing to overrule precedent without even acknowledging it is doing so, much less providing any special justification. It is hard to see how that approach is “founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.” Ramos, 590 U. S., at ___ (opinion of KAVANAUGH, J.)

Note to self: do not get Justice Sotomayor angry with you. Never do that.

And the final joke of it all is that Mississippi, in its limitless capacity for judicial savagery, had already invented a workaround: simply sentence juvenile offenders to 100 years—and they don’t even have to have killed anyone, either. Here’s to the state of Mississippi, goddamn.

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