Supreme Court makes two good decisions, and one bad one

Posted: June 27, 2012

NEARLY 500 Pennsylvania inmates who were sentenced to life without parole while they were juveniles may get another chance for freedom thanks to Monday's Supreme Court decision that ruled such sentences are unconstitutional. Following a 2005 decision that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, and a 2010 decision that outlawed life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, this decision outlaws mandatory-life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenders.

The Supreme Court is not excusing young people who commit murder — or juveniles who were sentenced not because they murdered but because they were with someone who did — and neither are we. But the court decision is eloquent in recognizing that "youth is more than a chronological fact," but a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, "impetuousness and recklessness." By outlawing the mandatory sentence, it requires sentencers to consider the age of the convicted.

As in earlier decisions, the deficiencies of a child's or adolescent brain development that can prevent them from understanding consequences of their actions, and even right and wrong, figured in the court's decision.

Pennsylvania has the highest number of juveniles in the country serving life without parole for second-degree, or felony, murder. According to Jeffrey Shook, who researches kids in the adult- justice system at University of Pittsburgh, the majority of those kids — approximately 60 percent — are from Philadelphia. These and another 2,000 cases across the country may be subject to resentencing. That's not to say they will all be freed, but mitigating factors — like a child's background or other difficulties — may now be taken into account. We feel there's a double tragedy in a child or youth who murders, but the essential death penalty of a life-without-parole sentence mitigates at least one of those tragedies.

No. 2: Arizona

The court on Monday also took the right action in striking down key parts of the Arizona immigration law that allowed the state unwarranted authority to stop and detain those who "looked illegal" and made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to seek work or work without a permit. The Arizona law would have also allowed police to make immigration arrests without a warrant. The court maintained that the states can't make their own immigration law.

However, the court upheld Arizona's right to demand "papers, please" — to require someone to show proof of legal status when stopped for another reason.

The court is right that the federal government is the ultimate immigration authority; now, that government needs to get serious about creating more coherent immigration policy.

No. 3: Citizens United

The court declined to reconsider its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which granted corporations personhood, with First Amendment rights. We're stealing from a site called "Create Real Democracy" to sum up our disdain for this decision. Here's an excerpt:

"We'll believe a corporation is a person when:

Arizona deports one.

Texas executes one.

Massachusetts marries two of them.

The U.S. government issues one a Social Security number.

The CIA extradites one to Guantanamo.

One sacrifices its life in military service."

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