Justice Sonya Sotomayor Explodes at Brett Kavanaugh for Upholding a Life Sentence for a 15-Year-Old
United States Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor tore into Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday after the Court delivered a 6-3 ruling upholding a life sentence imposed in 2004 by a lower court upon a then-15-year-old boy named Brett Jones who killed his abusive grandfather in self-defense.
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.
Jones’ experience is depressingly common among people sentenced to JLWOP. His crime was clearly the consequence of a traumatic childhood. He has been a near-model prisoner, earning his GED, working behind bars, and studying the Bible. His grandmother—the widow of his victim—has urged the courts to release him. Jones’ experience bears out the Supreme Court’s pronouncements in Miller and Montgomery that juvenile crimes often reflect immaturity, the product of underdeveloped brains and severe childhood trauma rather than permanent corruption. As Jones himself put it at his resentencing hearing: ‘Minors do have the ability to change. Please give me just one chance to show the world, man, like, I can be somebody. … I can’t change what was already done. I can just try to show … I’ve become a grown man.’
Normally, the High Court is reluctant to reverse previous decisions, opting instead to uphold established precedent, known as stare decisis.
But today, Kavanaugh and the Court’s six right-wing jurists overturned a precedent set in Miller versus Montgomery – that life sentences for minors are an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual means of punishment unless the defendant is deemed “incorrigible,” or unable to be rehabilitated – by Kavanaugh’s predecessor, former Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Sotomayor’s dissent was absolutely brutal.
“How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk,” Sotomayor wrote.
“Jones, like all juvenile offenders facing a sentence of LWOP, deserves an answer to Miller’s essential question: whether his crime demonstrates that he is permanently incorrigible. Ordinarily, an appellate court should not pass on that question in the first instance. But the Court today guarantees that the state sentencing court will never have to give Jones an answer. It thus bears acknowledging that, based on the evidence presented below, it is hard to see how Jones is one of the rare juvenile offenders ‘whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,'” the Justice opined.
Sotomayor brilliantly invoked Kavanaugh’s own past words to deliver her point.
“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,'” Sotomayor said, citing Kavanaugh.
“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,” she continued.
“No one disputes that this was a terrible crime,” Sotomayor added. “Miller, however, held that ‘the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.'”