U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

4 Grants: Bankruptcy, Patent Royalties, Life Sentences for Minors

The U.S. Supreme Court released its latest orders list Friday, granting certiorari in four cases. And unlike the typical list of snoozers, this list contained a case of national importance: Toca v. Louisiana.

Toca is all about clarifying the Court's Miller v. Alabama decision -- the one from 2012 where the Court declared that mandatory minimum life sentences for juvenile offenders were cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. Since then, federal and state courts and legislatures have split over whether that decision applied retroactively to past convictions (and therefore required resentencing).

Besides that massive case, the court granted three other petitions: two bankruptcy cases and a reexamination of patent royalty precedent.

Clarifying Precedent -- Maybe

Miller was a good decision: No mandatory minimums for juvenile offenders. Why? Because science has shown that the human prefrontal cortex (the part that handles impulse control) isn't fully formed until as late as your early 20s. Slamming a 14-year-old into an adult prison for life, without any consideration of his unique circumstances and potential for rehabilitation, especially in light of the science, is kind of cruel and unusual. At least, that was the Court's holding.

(Note that life sentences are still possible -- you just need to have a hearing and consider the individual's circumstances first.)

There was one problem, however: Does Miller apply to all of the lost children who are currently on lifelong bids in our nation's prisons? It's a complicated question, and many courts have stumbled over the Supreme Court's test for retroactivity (the Teague test).

As we recounted last year, some states have denied resentencing to existing lifers, some have granted resentencing, some legislatures have changed their laws, some haven't, and generally, this has been one big mess for the last two years.

And the mess may continue. As SCOTUSblog points out, the cert. grant in Toca included a second question: whether federal habeas relief is even available to an inmate claiming that a state court botched the Teague question -- this might not even be a federal case. Hopefully, for the sake of confused courts and remorseful then-juvenile lifers everywhere, that won't be the case.

You've also got to wonder: Why now? This issue has come to the court's attention repeatedly, including a petition from the Big Fall Conference that was denied as recently as October. Is the Court finally ready to decide the retroactivity issue? Or is it more interested in limiting federal habeas relief via that second question?

The Other Petitions

As exciting as Toca is, the other three cases are far less so. Here are quick one-liners on each:

  • Harris v. Viegelahn: When a debtor converts a Chapter 13 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy after an approved plan has been confirmed, do any remaining undistributed funds go to the debtor or to the creditor? The Fifth Circuit sided with creditors, while the Third Circuit previously sided with the debtor. (H/T to SCOTUSblog.)
  • Bullard v. Hyde Park Savings Bank: Is an order denying confirmation of a bankruptcy plan appealable? The First Circuit said that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.
  • Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises: The Court once ruled that "a patentee's use of a royalty agreement that projects beyond the expiration date of the patent is unlawful per se." This case, which involves a royalty agreement and a Spider-Man toy, asks whether the Court should change its mind. (Again, H/T to SCOTUSblog.)

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