Ruling shows ideological split
It's sometimes hard to distinguish the policy from the politics in high court decisions.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday again did what President Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, once said was unthinkable. It struck down as unconstitutional statutes in 29 states that authorize automatic life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Obama, of course, wasn't talking about whether juveniles should face a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole if convicted of a serious crime like murder. It's almost certain that he, as a principled liberal, does not support such sentences.
He was talking, mistakenly of course, about the propriety of courts striking down laws passed by state or federal legislatures. Courts do it on a regular basis, and doing so is well within their authority under legal precedents going back 200 years.
Of course, when Obama made that infamously incorrect statement, he was talking about Obamacare, his landmark health care legislation that soon will be the subject of a high court decision on its constitutionality.
Obama's point was that it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare because the court should respect Congress' decision to pass it.
Courts strike down all kinds of legislation on a variety of grounds. How one feels about that usually depends on how one views the specific legislation at issue.
Monday's opinion involving juveniles and mandatory life sentences is but one example.
Over the past seven years, the high court's four liberals joined by conservative/libertarian Justice Anthony Kennedy have issued three major decisions involving juveniles convicted of violent crime.
In Roper vs. Simmons (2005), the high court by a 5-4 vote outlawed the death penalty for juveniles convicted of murder on the grounds that that sentence violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Because young people are immature, impulsive and often impervious to reason, the court said, to sentence them to death would violate constitutional prohibitions.
By a similar vote in 2010, the high court struck down sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.
In the latest case, Miller vs. Alabama, the high court struck down mandatory life sentences for juvenile murderers who were 14 at the time of their offenses.
Court conservatives John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito expressed disappointment over the court majority's failure to respect the judgments of the legislators who authorized mandatory life sentences for juvenile murderers. They also expressed dismay over any lack of objective standards as to what constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."
Roberts wrote that establishing "the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presented grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy" best left to the people's representatives in legislative bodies.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the decision striking down mandatory life sentences for juvenile murderers is consistent with recent precedents and reliant "not only on common sense — on what 'any parent knows' — but on science and social science as well."
If the conventional wisdom is correct, the high court may well strike down Obamacare this week on the grounds that its mandate requiring everyone to purchase health insurance or be fined violates the constitution's commerce clause.
If so, look for court conservatives to emphasize the violation of the constitution and liberals to argue the court should defer to the judgment of legislators, the exact opposite of positions they took in the juvenile cases.
Some may see these seeming inconsistencies as a reflection of judicial politics, judges simply ruling as their personal feelings dictate rather than following the law. In reality, it's a matter of judicial philosophy — conservative versus liberal versus libertarian or some combination thereof.
Critics of the sometimes tawdry nature of the legislative process at times describe it as as unappetizing as the process of making sausage. That same analogy can be applied, not in all cases but certainly some, to decision-making at the high levels of the judiciary as well.